Mapping the International Trade and Traffic of Electronic Waste

Researcher: Dr. Josh Lepawsky

Our technologizing world is one fraught with radical social, political, and economic unevenness. Digital technologies and the industries that produce them are often represented as desirable economic development strategies. Yet, there is a growing recognition that these high-tech products and industries exact significant environmental and social costs that belie optimistic predictions about the emergence of a de-materialized and sustainable ‘Information Age’.

In 2006, Canadians disposed of 140,000 metric tonnes of obsolete electronic equipment or ‘e-waste’. The United Nations estimates that anywhere between 20 and 50 million tonnes of e-waste is generated globally; and according to activist groups, 50 to 80 percent of the e-waste designated for recycling domestically in Canada is actually being exported overseas to be processed by poor and marginalized populations in ‘developing’ Asian and African countries.

No single definition of e-waste exists, but in Canada the emerging targets of legislation include personal computers (PCs), laptop computers, monitors, peripherals (e.g., printers, scanners, disk drives), telephones, mobile phones, and facsimile machines. The dominant approach to e-waste in this legislative milieu is to conceptualize it as a problem to be mitigated through technical engineering and regulation. Typically, the disposal of e-waste is understood as an endpoint within a linear process of production and consumption that culminates in land-filling or incineration. However, there is an important body of research notably in anthropology, geography, history, and sociology that understands disposal and waste quite differently. Rather than an endpoint in a narrowly defined economic process, disposal is understood to be part of complex cultural practices of social constitution, ritual, and reproduction that have not only changed over time in our own society, but also vary geographically in culturally distinctive ways.

Repair and refurbishing of rubbish electronics in Dhaka, Bangladesh

Figure 1: Rubbish electronics repair and refurbishing, Dhaka, Bangladesh.


E-waste recyclign event in Vancouver, BC

Figure 2: Rubbish electronics recycling, Vancouver, British Columbia.


From Mapping the International Trade and Traffic of Ewaste…

Dr. Lepawsky’s research interests in the geographies of the international trade and traffic of electronic waste are organized around the following kinds of questions:

  • How much and what kind of e-waste is exported from Canada and where does it go?
  • How are the licit and illicit trade networks for e-waste formed and organized?
  • Where, by whom, and under what conditions is e-waste processed domestically and abroad after it is exported from Canada?
  • How do the domestic and international divisions of labour involved in e-waste processing contribute to the capture and/or creation of value from waste?
  • How do the emerging patterns of e-waste legislation strategically use and represent the geographies of ‘waste’ and ‘value’? What are the implications of those representations for policy and practice?
  • How do materials designated as ‘e-waste’ in one place become sources of ‘value’ elsewhere?


…to Reassembling Rubbish Electronics

Research into the above questions has lead to a series of publications that have begun to rethink the dominant storylines about e-waste. A recently successful SSHRC Insight grant is enabling Dr. Lepawsky and a team of researchers to ask new questions. These include:

  • What is the ‘right’ thing to do with e-waste? Where, how, and under what conditions should electronics be recycled?
  • How might a better understanding of the knowledge, skills, and creativity of workers in foreign markets, who re-imagine and rework electronics disposed of in Canada and elsewhere into new commodities, lead to a rethinking of electronic waste as a potential source of value?
  • Is a system of ‘ethical’ or ‘fair’ trade in e-waste — which would include, among other things, material and component recovery as well as repair, refurbishing, and reuse of machines —  a viable alternative to the existing strategies of national and international legal prohibitions against e-waste exports from ‘developed’ to ‘developing’ countries? If so, what would such a system of trade look like and how would it be regulated/governed?
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