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 Université de Neuchâtel - NE
Disciplines Ethnology
Start/End 01.11.2013 - 31.10.2016
Approved amount 458'254.00
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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

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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).