Circuits of Value, Streams of Stuff

Living off the global trade and treatment of "e-waste"

Over the past few decades, international agencies, national governments, corporations, academics and the media have increasingly turned their attention to the global circulation of electric and electronic equipment (EEE), focusing on the environmental and health risks posed by its end treatment. This preoccupation with the “e‐waste problem” is understandable. Waste electric and electronic equipment (WEEE) is currently the fastest growing solid waste stream on the planet and contains a wide range of hazardous chemicals that can cause considerable damage to human health and to the environment.

Classifying as “e‐waste” EEE that is discarded by its first user (pictured as located in the “North”), this “e‐waste discourse” maps waste flow in a linear fashion that overlooks many important steps through which used EEE is transported, by material and semiotic means, from its first user to its end state (if indeed “end state” is the proper term). In so doing, the agents responsible for this circulation tend to disappear, as demonstrated by the frequent use of the passive form (“used computers are sent to...”), reflecting a lack of information about the actors behind e‐waste’s global dynamics, and a temptation to see the receivers of used EEE (pictured as located in the “South”) as mere victims of a discriminatory system. This portrayal oversimplifies important nodes in the EEE‐WEEE complex, and entertains a certain tension with two other areas of agenda‐setting and policy‐making: the push for greater “ITC penetration” into “developing countries”, and appeals to the notion of the “circular economy”, popular in environmental circles and officially promoted by countries such as China.

Our research proposal starts from the observation that many human beings across the globe make of “e‐ waste” a livelihood; one man’s waste is another man’s resource. Beyond these economic considerations, used EEE and WEEE also offer an arena for the deployment of expertise, the creation of social relations and the construction of cultural imaginaries. Our project is built around two underexplored sites within this system. One study begins at Computer Village in Lagos, Nigeria, the largest used EEE market in Africa. The tradesmen and technicians at Computer Village deal in underdetermined objects: surplus, discarded, re‐usable and/or defective EEE that they siphon back into circuits of EEE on the one hand, streams of WEEE on the other. We will investigate the commercial skills and networks of the largely Igbo traders who dominate this market, following them to China and the U.S., and probing their understandings of their trade. A second entry is through the “backdoor” into the urban neighborhoods and rural villages in China that are active in the disassembly and destruction of used EEE and the recovery of the valuable materials it contains. We will document the activities of this largely informal sector, and question the assumptions behind the “circular economy” and formalization of waste treatment, currently being promoted by the Chinese government and international organizations.

This project builds on on‐going work being conducted by Ellen Hertz in the area of corporate social responsibility in the electronics industry, and will lead to two doctoral dissertations and a number of publications in high‐ranking journals. We will also engage with key actors in the area of e‐waste policy‐making, such as the ILO and the Swiss Institute for Material Research (EMPA). 


Equipe de recherche