Yvan Schulz

Trading (on) Trash: regimes of Value and Electronics' Afterlife in a Changing China

My PhD research explores changes that have occurred in recent years in China and that affect the image, fate and value of discarded electrical and electronic equipment (DEEE) as well as that of the people who make a living by trading, transporting and transforming this type of object. It is based on multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork conducted in China over a period of three years, from 2014 to 2016.

DEEE is usually referred to as “e-waste” (dianzi laji) and framed as a source of pollution and global injustice. Since the early 2000s, the Chinese central government and its advisors have progressively promoted and established a “formalized recycling system”, which they present as the solution to the “e-waste” problem. In official discourse, “formalization” allows for a better protection of the environment and utilization of resources. As my research indicates, however, this national project hardly delivers on that promise, but makes many others. The exclusion of the social actors (collectively referred to as the “informal sector”) who acted as the driving force behind scrap recycling and object stewardship in China in recent decades, in particular, suggests that other factors better account for the contemporary push for a revolution in material and symbolic engagements with DEEE.

My reflection centres on how China’s aspiration to modernity shapes, and is shaped by, objects’ materiality, recycling technologies, valuation practices, representations of waste and wastefulness, and state-society relations. It is informed by scholarship in the sociology of public problems, discard studies, China studies, political ecology, environmental politics, economic anthropology and STS.

I also work on two additional research projects: one entitled Circuits of Waste and Value: Making E-waste Subjects in China and Japan, led by Dr. Anna Lora-Wainwright and Dr. Peter W. Kirby from the University of Oxford, the other Valueworks: Effects of Financialization along the Copper Value Chain, coordinated by Prof. Rita Kesselring from the University of Basel and Dr. Stefan Leins from the University of Zurich.


Recent publications and presentations

“The great value of poor migrants: state policies, Christian morality and primary education in Sabah (Malaysia)”, South East Asia Research (2017).

“Réassemblages marginaux au cœur de la ‘Mecque du hardware’” [“Marginal reassembly in the centre of the ‘hardware Mecca’”], Techniques & Culture 67 (2017).

(with Benjamin Steuer) “Dealing with discarded e-devices” in Eva Sternfeld (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Environmental Policy in China, London: Routledge (2017).

“‘Fin de vie’ et renaissance clandestine en Chine du Sud. Quand des ‘déchets’ redeviennent des écrans plats” [“’End of life’” and clandestine rebirth in South China: On "waste" that transforms back into flat screens”], Techniques & Culture 65-66 (2016): 158-161 [full article in French and abstract in English available online]. http://tc.revues.org/7858

“Towards a new waste regime? Critical reflections on China’s shifting market for high-tech discards”, China Perspectives 2015/3 (2015): 43-50. Also available in French: “Vers un nouveau régime en matière de déchets ? Réflexions critiques sur l’évolution du marché chinois des appareils high-tech d’occasion”, Perspectives Chinoises 2015/3 (2015): 47-56.

“Time representations in social science”, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 14 4 (2012): 381-387.