Worlding Electronic Waste
240 pp., 6 x 9 in, 24 b&w illus.
- Published: April 13, 2018
- Published: April 13, 2018
- Published: April 6, 2018
An examination of the global trade and traffic in discarded electronics that reframes the question of the “right” thing to do with e-waste.
The prevailing storyline about the problem of electronic waste frames e-waste as generated by consumers in developed countries and dumped on people and places in developing countries. In Reassembling Rubbish, Josh Lepawsky offers a different view. In an innovative analysis of the global trade and traffic in discarded electronics, Lepawsky reframes the question of the “right” thing to do with e-waste, mapping the complex flows of electronic materials. He counters the assumption that e-waste is a post-consumer problem, pointing out that waste occurs at all stages of electronic materials' existence, and calls attention to the under-researched world of reuse and repair.
Lepawsky explains that there are conflicting legal distinctions between electronic waste and non-waste, and examines a legal case that illustrates the consequences. He shows that patterns of trade do not support the dominant narrative of e-waste dumping but rather represent the dynamic ecologies of repair, refurbishment, and materials recovery. He asks how we know waste, how we measure it, and how we construe it, and how this affects our efforts to mitigate it. We might not put so much faith in household recycling if we counted the more massive amounts of pre-consumer electronic waste as official e-waste. Lepawsky charts the “minescapes,” “productionscapes,” and “clickscapes” of electronics, and the uneven “discardscapes” they produce. Finally, he considers both conventional and unconventional e-waste solutions, including decriminalizing export for reuse, repair, and upgrade; enabling ethical trade in electronics reuse, repair, refurbishment, and recycling; implementing extended producer responsibility; and instituting robust forms of public oversight.
This book is a game-changer in waste studies: it compels scholars, activists, engineers, and policymakers to embrace a new preventative waste paradigm so we can finally graduate from the kindergarten of household recycling.
Zsuzsa Gille, Professor of Sociology, Director of Global Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; author of From the Cult of Waste to the Trash Heap of History: The Politics of Waste in Socialist and Postsocialist Hungary
Finally we have a clear anatomy of what electronic waste really means with the full environmental consequences of mining, producing, trading, legislating for, consuming, and discarding electronics mapped out, and many of the current mythologies of waste deftly unpicked. The familiar images of irresponsible consumers of electronics, or indeed of hellish dumps of polluting e-waste, are clearly shown to be obfuscatory tropes concealing systemic waste production throughout the lifecycle of electronics. Lepawsky not only expands our understanding of where and why waste appears but offers acute insights into the nature of waste processes globally. Most strikingly, he shows how discarding is not a practice of separation, as is often suggested, but one of reconnecting, reclassifying, and regrouping at different scales: reworlding waste, often via the most intimate engagements of repair.
Catherine Alexander, Professor of Anthropology, Durham University; coeditor of Economies of Recycling: The Global Transformation of Materials, Values and Social Relations
If there was a prize for the most charismatic waste, e-waste would win every time. It's constantly in the news and NGO spotlight. But what's the right thing to do with e-waste? Repair, reuse, recycle our old phones, computers, printers? That's the tip of the iceberg, according to Reassembling Rubbish. The vast majority of e-waste created in making these things travels across complex networks of mines, smelters, factories, and other sites. Lepawsky tenaciously follows every tendril, reads every report, questions every statistic, joins every dot... to leave us convinced that 'the consumer' can't solve this problem alone.
Ian Cook et al, Professor of Cultural Geography, University of Exeter; CEO of followthethings.com; cofounder of the Museum of Contemporary Commodities