Project

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Circuits of value, streams of stuff: Living off the global trade and treatment of "e-waste"

Applicant Hertz Ellen
Number 149559
Funding scheme Project funding (Div. I-III)
Research institution Institut d'Ethnologie Université de Neuchâtel
Institution of higher education University of Neuchatel - NE
Main discipline Ethnology
Start/End 01.11.2013 - 30.04.2017
Approved amount 459'759.00
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All Disciplines (2)

Discipline
Ethnology
Social geography and ecology

Keywords (10)

circular economy; health and environmental hazards; ITC penetration; informal sector; e-waste; electric and electronic equipment (EEE); Nigeria; China; recycling; global trade networks

Lay Summary (French)

Lead
Les flux de matériel électronique usagé, qui contiennent un large spectre de matériaux dangereux et/ou précieux, connaîssent la croissance la plus rapide de la planète. En dépit de l’interdiction qui frappe l’exportation de déchets dangereux vers les pays « en voie développement », ce matériel fait l'objet d'un commerce extrêmement dynamique, d'une ampleur globale. A la fois convoité et menaçant, il a un impact important sur les conditions de vie et de travail de millions d'être humains.
Lay summary

Dans cette recherche, nous suivons deux flux d'EEE ayant été peu étudiés jusqu'ici. Le premier est constitué d’ordinateurs portables de deuxième main qui quittent la Chine et les USA pour atterrir au Computer Village de Lagos (Nigéria), le plus grand marché de matériel informatique d'Afrique. Le second est composé de déchets électroniques, importés ou générés en Chine et qui sont démantelés dans de petits ateliers comme dans de grandes usines de recyclage afin d'en extraire les composants de valeur. Notre étude analysera les réseaux, les motivations, et les compétences des personnes qui vivent de ces activités ainsi que les entraves et soucis (d’illégalité, de santé, de survie économique) qu'elles rencontrent. Sur ces bases ethnographiques, nous interrogerons les initiatives locales, nationales et internationales en matière de gestion de matériel électronique usagé, notamment en abordant deux politiques de développement associées à ce champ : la promotion de la pénétration des TIC sur le continent africain, d'une part ; et d'autre part, la valorisation de l’économie circulaire et les efforts de formalisation du secteur du recyclage en République populaire de Chine.

La littérature scientifique existante au sujet du matériel électronique usagé, bien que vaste, est dominée par des considérations techniques. Notre approche ethnographique permettra de prendre du recul par rapport aux questions soulevées jusqu'ici et de mieux réfléchir aux solutions à envisager.

Direct link to Lay Summary Last update: 15.10.2013

Responsible applicant and co-applicants

Employees

Publications

Publication
"Dealing with discarded e-devices"
Schulz Yvan, Steuer Benjamin (2017), "Dealing with discarded e-devices", in Sternfeld Eva (ed.), Routledge, London, 314-327.
"Reassemblages marginaux au coeur de la 'Mecque du hardware'"
Schulz Yvan (2017), "Reassemblages marginaux au coeur de la 'Mecque du hardware'", in Techniques & Culture, 67(2017), 86-99.
"'Fin de vie' et renaissance clandestine en Chine du Sud. Quand des 'déchets' redeviennent des écrans plats"
Schulz Yvan (2016), "'Fin de vie' et renaissance clandestine en Chine du Sud. Quand des 'déchets' redeviennent des écrans plats", in Techniques & Culture, 65-66(2016), 158-161.
"Towards a new waste regime? Critical reflections on China's shifting market for high-tech discards"
Schulz Yvan (2015), "Towards a new waste regime? Critical reflections on China's shifting market for high-tech discards", in China Perspetives, 2015(3), 43-50.
"In the name of circularity: Business slowdown in a Chinese recycling hub"
Schulz Yvan, Lora-Wainwright Anna, "In the name of circularity: Business slowdown in a Chinese recycling hub", in Worldwide Waste, 1.
"Scrapping 'irregulary': China's recycling policies, development ethos and peasants turned enterpreneurs"
Schulz Yvan, "Scrapping 'irregulary': China's recycling policies, development ethos and peasants turned enterpreneurs", in Journal für Entwicklungspolitik, 1.

Collaboration

Group / person Country
Types of collaboration
School of Sociology and Anthropology, Sun Yat-Sen University China (Asia)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Research Infrastructure
Lagos Studies Association, Columbia University United States of America (North America)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
Sinology Department, University of Vienna Austria (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Publication
School of Geography and the Environment and China Centre, University of Oxford Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
- Publication
- Exchange of personnel
Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, Halle Germany (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
Technology and Society Unit, Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) Switzerland (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
Solve the E-waste Problem (StEP), United Nations University et al. Germany (Europe)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
Basel Convention Coordinating Centre for Training and Technology Transfer for the African Region Nigeria (Africa)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
Institut français de recherche en Afrique Nigeria (Africa)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
Institute for African Studies, University of Ibadan Nigeria (Africa)
- in-depth/constructive exchanges on approaches, methods or results
Faculty of Social Sciences, Lagos State University (LASU) Nigeria (Africa)
- Exchange of personnel

Scientific events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Title of article or contribution Date Place Persons involved
Invitation to give lecture for BA seminar "Waste economies", University of Fribourg Individual talk "The political ecology of e-waste recycling in China" 17.05.2018 Fribourg, Switzerland Schulz Yvan;
Invitation to give lecture for BA seminar on contemporary China, University of Geneva Individual talk "Innovation and environment: a political ecology approach to e-waste management and sustainability in China" 17.05.2018 Geneva, Switzerland Schulz Yvan;
Séminaire: La deuxième vie des objets (DVO) Talk given at a conference "La Chine ferme ses frontières et c’est la panique à bord. Retour sur les origines d’un déséquilibre dans la gestion mondialisée des déchets recyclables" 01.02.2018 École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Paris, France Schulz Yvan;
Invitaiton to give a lecture for MA student in International and Public Affairs, SIPA, Columbia Univeristy, New York Individual talk Hustler’s wonderland ? Selling used computers in Lagos, between opportunities and challenges 04.12.2017 New York, United States of America Sala Alice;
Annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association Talk given at a conference "Turning the '3Rs' principle on its head: Electronics reuse in the face of China's circular economy project" 03.12.2017 Washington, United States of America Schulz Yvan;
Séminaire : La vie politique des marchandises (VIPOMAR) Talk given at a conference Le puzzle comme métaphore méthodologique 28.03.2017 École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales (EHESS), Marseille, France Schulz Yvan;
Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth Talk given at a conference "When Excess Trumps Efficiency: Recycling Networks, Public Policies and the Growth Imperative in Contemporary China" 04.07.2016 University of Durham, Great Britain and Northern Ireland Schulz Yvan;
CHEW Conference Talk given at a conference "(In)visible Toxics and the Politics of Pollution in a Chinese 'E-waste' Processing Hub" 21.05.2016 Oxford University, Great Britain and Northern Ireland Schulz Yvan;
Lagos: from the Pepperfarm to the Megacity Talk given at a conference "Hustlers' Wonderland? Selling Used Computers in Lagos: between Challenges and Opportunities" 06.05.2016 Barnard College, United States of America Sala Alice;
Invitation to give lecture in class on contemporary China Individual talk "Discours écologiques, modèles technico-commerciaux et enjeux de pouvoir. Le cas des 'déchets' électriques et électroniques en Chine du sud" 05.04.2016 University of Geneva, Switzerland Schulz Yvan;
Undisciplined Environments, International Conference of the European Network of Political Ecology Talk given at a conference "Green is the New Red: On Some of the Political Origins and Implications of China's Green Craze" 23.03.2016 Stockholm, Sweden Schulz Yvan;
Anthropology and Environment(s), Conférence Universitaire de Suisse Occidentale (CUSO) Talk given at a conference "Green is the New Red: On the Political Implications of China's Craze for Eco-Blah-Blah" 11.03.2016 Bevaix, Switzerland Schulz Yvan;
"La gestion des déchets électroniques : nouvel enjeu Nord-Sud ?" Talk given at a conference Invited expert at round-table discussion 03.03.2016 University of Liège, Belgium Schulz Yvan;
La vie politique des marchandises: approche qualitative de circulations transnationales Talk given at a conference Invited experts at round-table discussion 16.12.2015 Camargo Foundation, Cassis, France Sala Alice; Schulz Yvan;
Annual meeting of the American Anthropological Association Talk given at a conference "Discarded Electrical and Electronic Devices and the Politics of Recycling in China" 21.11.2015 Denver, CO, United States of America Schulz Yvan;
Annual meetings of the American Anthropology Society Talk given at a conference "A Global Computer Village: Used Computers shipped from Guangzhou to Lagos" 18.11.2015 Denver, CO, United States of America Sala Alice;
Class for students in Master in Intercultural Studies, NLA University College Individual talk "Green and Greed: Critical Reflections on China's Shifting Market for Discarded Electrical and Electronic Devices" 26.03.2015 Beijing, NLA University College research trip, China Schulz Yvan;
Academic Salon on Changing China Individual talk "看电器,看见垃圾——社会建构主义视域下的中国电子废弃物管理体系分析” 19.12.2014 Sun Yat-Sen University, Guangzhou, China Schulz Yvan;
Réparer le monde – excès, reste et innovation Talk given at a conference "Une vie clandestine après la mort programmée. Remarques sur la visibilité des 'déchets' électroniques en Chine du sud" 21.11.2014 CNRS, Marseille, France Schulz Yvan;
Going Green / Care Innovation Talk given at a conference "Is 'Formalization' of the 'Informal Sector' Really the Way to Go? A View from the Field in China" 18.11.2014 Vienna, Austria Schulz Yvan;
Rencontres scientifiques MAPS Individual talk "La gestion des appareils électriques et électroniques d'occasion en Chine" 14.10.2014 University of Neuchâtel, Switzerland Schulz Yvan;
20th Conference of the European Association for Chinese Studies Talk given at a conference "A tale of David and Goliath: Mapping the Chinese market for discarded electrical and electronic appliances" 23.07.2014 Braga/Coimbra, Portugal Schulz Yvan;
New European Research on Contemporary China Talk given at a conference "Competing for High-Tech Trash" 03.07.2014 Beijing, China Schulz Yvan;
Migrations, économies et mondialisation Talk given at a conference "Long Live Nigeria-China Friendship": Ethnographie d’un commence informel à longue distance d’ordinateurs de deuxième main 11.12.2013 Ecole nationale supérieure, Paris, France Sala Alice;
PROWELL doctoral program on social problems Talk given at a conference "An Anthropological Perspective on E-waste Management in China" 29.11.2013 Flamatt, Fribourg, Switzerland Schulz Yvan;
Annual Meeting of the Swiss Ethnological Society Talk given at a conference "An Anthropological Perspective on E-waste Management in China" 09.11.2013 Sierre, Switzerland Schulz Yvan;


Self-organised

Title Date Place

Knowledge transfer events

Active participation

Title Type of contribution Date Place Persons involved
Invitation to give lesson in class "Globalization of Asia" Talk 27.04.2016 EPFL, Lausanne, Switzerland Schulz Yvan;
U.N. E-waste Academy Talk 06.12.2013 Geneva and St-Gallen, Switzerland Schulz Yvan;


Communication with the public

Communication Title Media Place Year
Media relations: radio, television (No title) CulturesMonde (on the international trade and traffic in waste) France Culture Western Switzerland International 2018
Media relations: print media, online media “En Chine, l’obsolescence fait recette” Le Matin Dimanche Western Switzerland 2018
Print (books, brochures, leaflets) "La ruée vers l'e-waste" Western Switzerland 2017
New media (web, blogs, podcasts, news feeds etc.) "Toxic e-waste, oriented science" Toxic News International 2016
New media (web, blogs, podcasts, news feeds etc.) "Working on Progress: Unauthorized Recyclers Keep Out" La deuxième vie des objets International 2016
New media (web, blogs, podcasts, news feeds etc.) "Criminal Negligence" Parts 1 and 2 Discard Studies International 2015
Media relations: print media, online media “UNEP report on electronic scrap has serious flaws, says researchers” Scrap Monster International 2015

Awards

Title Year
Prix Nexans 2018 pour la Thèse d'Yvan Schulz 2018

Abstract

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).
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