Europe produces 10.3 million tons per year of electronic waste, about a quarter of the world’s total amount and it’s expected this number to rise up to 12.3 million tonnes a year by 2020. The report “2008 Review of Directive 2002/96 of the European Parliament and the Council on Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE)” (2008) reveals that today in Europe only the 25% of medium sized appliances and the 40% of large equipments are collected for being recovered and recycled. The number for small appliances is close to zero, leaving a “substantial space for improvement.” Moreover, from a report elaborated by United Nations University with StEP (2010), it’s considered that very likely, the increase in sales of mobile phones, computers and other electronic products can influence public health and environment in those countries hardly prepared to handle waste. Part of the problem is due to socio-technical conditions that promote unsustainable patterns of technology’s consumption cycle (Shove et al. 2007a; Watson & Shove, 2008). The constant need of software updates and equipment replacement creates “an illusion of eternal progress leading to an unstoppable and undeniable chain of use-scrap-replacement” (obsoletos.org). As Fascendi (2009) states in his communications about computers’ recycling, “the electronics industry makes an effort to create the illusion of obsolescence, to convince people that they need to change their computers, phones, cameras and other equipment in increasing shorter periods”. It is still the small consumer to whom it urges more to make aware and encourage on the collection of waste (UNU, 2008), as governments, corporations and other large organizations are those who have more easy access to formal channels of technological waste recycling.
These problems we describe are the reverse of the so-called Information and Knowledge Society (Robert, & Mackenzie, 2006). Access to electronic communications and the availability of perennial updated information has transformed our lives and social habits in a positive way. However, these changes are also associated with an environmental problem that requires the involvement of governments, industry and citizens. From many international forums, it’s pointed out that the challenge means to act and design future policies that turn the current problem into an opportunity to move towards an ecological electronic economy. Achim Steiner, Deputy General Secretary of the United Nations and Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (PNUMA), has even argued that, in addition to reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, preventing health problems and recovering precious metals, a more appropriate waste recycling may create jobs. To solve this problem, the European Union (EU) provides general measures1 to prevent the formation of electrical and electronic waste and promote their reuse, recycling and recovery, in order to reduce its quantity and also improve environmental results of economic agents involved in its management. This directive means to bet on a model of environmental policy based on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), a principle that promotes environmental improvement through the extension of the responsibilities of products’ manufacturers at different times in their entire life, especially in retirement, recycling and final disposal.
However, this policy proposal highlights several gaps and areas for improvement: Firstly, the fact that these measures focus primarily on the stage of recycling (collection, treatment, valuation and elimination), shows a lack of ecological culture in their approach as the stage of recycling is only considered as the last step of the cycle of ecological habits. So it can be able to happen a responsible consumption that minimize waste at maximum, it’s necessary to stress on the earlier stages of reduction and reuse, even if it means questioning the current economic model, based on consumption. Thus, a more sustainable solution, particularly relevant at a time of economic crisis like the present, should address to the source of the problem: waste and unnecessary consumption, facilitated by the availability of credit in the previous years to the global recession, and supported by software and hardware industries. In some authors’ opinion (Tang, 2009), the most sustainable solution to reduce and eliminate the levels of e-waste is to prevent consumption and to change social attitudes towards the needs of constant “update”. Only then it will be possible to move from a consumer economy to a green economy more equitable and less harmful to the environment. It means that following the current debates on ecological models of consumption (Greenpeace, 2010) (the rule of the seven Rs), the results of our research should allow us to design solutions addressed to the stages of reduction, reuse and recycling of e-waste, but also they will allow us to:
Rethink the habits, and lifestyles of citizens in relation to electronic components (hardware) to differentiate the basic needs from the superfluous ones.
Reallocate certain products and other e-waste components into other production and consumption cycles.
And think about how to:
Restructure the economic system to avoid unnecessary production of goods and the increase in electronic waste.
Redistribute economic and technological resources in a more socially equitable way and less damaging form to the environment.
Secondly, the kind of political proposal by EU is an example of how knowledge society is transforming the conditions of participation in public and political life and the quality and nature of democratic mechanisms in contemporary societies (Barthe, 2006; Callon, Lascoumes and Barthe, 2001; Marres, 2007): actual responses to e-waste is a case of public controversy that becomes a discussion where the role of scientists, technicians and industry is being more and more important while the citizenship is moving away from the places of decisions and influence. Macro-policy proposals designed “from above” like these, which merely affect the legislative level and only consider the active role of companies and industry, obviate the creative and innovative potential of informal practices and knowledge of citizenship. As a consequence, denying the participation of lay people in these areas can be a non-announced danger for a society structured, basically, around techno-scientific culture and a consuming economy (Shove et al. 2007a; Watson & Shove, 2008). Despite of a contemporary concern about participative models and public engagement on science, the implications of citizenship’s informal & “bottom-up” practices (Büscher et al. 2008) and political collective actions has been rarely studied (Nelkin, 1987; Callon i Rabeharisoa, 2008). Specifically, in the field of e-waste, and as a proof of this widespread interest in purely legal and legislative macro-social aspects, there is abundance of articles and reports dedicated, basically, to analysing and comparing different local and state public policies (Saphores et al., 2007; Kipperberg , 2007; Nnorom et al., 2009; Boran, 2004; Streicher-Porte, 2005; Kunacheva, 2009, Sluis, 2010).
However, according to two documents (“White Paper on European Governance” and “Science and Society Action Plan”), this issue is also one of the most remarkable concerns for the EU: the need to promote a wider dialogue between techno-science and lay people and also explore possible ways of involve them2. Even, some european programs, such as ‘European Research for an Inclusive Information Society’, is working for the development of more inclusive public policies about techno-scientific innovations. It means that the importance of contemporary techno-science on the definition of public policies, on the making of the public sphere and the production of social and political participation’s mechanisms is a tangible fact but has also received a very poor theoretical and methodological attention by the scientific community (Callon et al. 2001; Latour, 2004). In this sense, valuing the participation and expertise of citizens and paying attention to creative informal and lay practices (Epstein, 1995) in relation to the reduction and reuse of e-waste, can provide relevant information and knowledge for the design of closer, more inclusive public policies and more adjusted responses to daily lives, needs and motivations of citizenship. Simultaneously, it can also give relevant information for the design (Shove et al. 2007b) of technological devices more environmentally friendly and easily reusable and recyclable. In other words, lay citizens’ participation is more and more important and strategical as they become expert agents with capacity to produce, manage and use critically techno-scientific innovations (Epstein, 1995;Domènech, et al., 2002; Callon y Rabeharisoa, 2003; Callon, 2003; Rabeharisoa, 2006). Although it is true that only isolated informal proposals cannot be the sole basis for solving the overproduction of technological waste, it can be considered as a way to pay more attention on the problem and as a available mean to citizens to encourage better and more creative consumption habits. Revealing this kind of experiences, initiatives and projects provides useful tools for the active participation of people in their own economy and their accountability in the environment. This also facilitates the integration and political convergence (Hess, 2005) between the current systems of formal and informal recycling, such as computer reuse projects through grants to developing countries to bridge the digital divide, or art projects that use components and electronic waste. Definitely, a participatory and inclusive process in designing the legal framework that considers the plurality of agents (specially, lay people) and technological uses is a prerequisite for successful technological implementation and subsequent adoption but also for a more democratic society.
In synthesis, this political context dedicated to the treatment of e-waste highlights the need to explore and analyse the daily innovative practices and lay knowledges that happen beyond the formal circuit of recycling technology – such as the experience of Hardmeeting3, Ferralla Festival4 or Obsoletos5– in order to meet their socio-technical, ecological and economic potentials. Investigating more deeply about the initiatives, experiences and lay citizens’ projects dedicated to the reduction and innovative and creative reuse of components and waste electrical and electronic equipment will allow us to develop more useful, comprehensive, inclusive, democratic and innovative policy proposals in the field of technological ecology. This also obliges to explore the perception of electronic and techno-scientific developments by citizenship, their relationship with the ‘formal’ technical (Hess, 2005) and political expertises and the institutional visions of ecology and technology, and also their innovative responses to this controversial matter. Definitely, the research proposal here presented will offer useful insights to redefine integral policies for dealing with and responding to complex environmental problems like those we have detailed. In other words, at the bottom of this research, we will explore the emergency of lay “concerned groups” and innovative informal projects around e-waste and their political and ecological effects over techno-science and knowledge society (Bloomfield & Hayes, 2009). Through the analysis of their concrete techno-ecological proposals, we will show two main things: the role of these ‘other’ experts on redefining the production of knowledge and techno-science’s logic, but also their role on the creation and contesting of public and political sphere (Marres, 2007), increasing and transforming its sense of democracy. This will let us to know how these experiences and initiatives re-define critically the relationship between technology and politics on the contemporary complex societies, specially, on the interconnected field that emerge from applying an ecological vision to the Information Society.
1Directive 2002/96/CE of European Parliament and the Council of January 27th, 2003 about electric and electronic appliances’ waste.
2Specially on health and medical area, there are several experiences about it: the INRA (Institut National de la Recherche Agronomique), with the research project Science et Governance: analyse et experiences, has elaborated important studies such as «Biotechnologies et débat public : Analyse des controverses et de l’impact de la Conférence de Citoyens» (1997-1999) and «Participation de non-scientifiques dans les comités d’évaluation de risques: étude de cas sur les OGM» (2001-2003).