Behind the Screen
For my dissertation research, I am focused on the sociopolitical relations of electronics disposal, a less-considered but increasingly important stage in the life cycle of electronics. Although much has already been written on the global trade in hazardous wastes, the Basel Convention that regulates this trade, and the environmental injustice of the global waste trade--with wealthy countries dumping the "negative externalities" of their consumption on vulnerable communities in the global South--the reality today appears to be more complex. Regulators in the Basel Convention and the UN Environment Program, as well as civil society actors in industry and NGOs, have an increased interest in promoting the development of markets and infrastructure in high tech e-waste recycling. Historically, e-wastes have been both talked about, and treated as, a toxic and unwanted byproduct of the digital age. However, today key actors in the regulatory, industrial and civil society spheres are now discussing e-wastes as critical "resources" for economic and technological development. I hypothesize that uncovering the economic, technological and geopolitical drivers of this shift will reveal that the global trade in e-wastes can no longer be described as a clear-cut North/South, "perpetrator-victim," scenario, rather, it must be seen as a dynamic process where environmental inequalities are mitigated and reconstituted in new forms and at various sites. I identify two dominant paradigms that scholars, activists, policy makers and industry actors employ in evaluating the global trade in electronic wastes. I label these two paradigms the "environmental justice evaluation" and the "resource capture evaluation." By engaging concepts from global political economy and environmental sociology (particularly, O'Connor 1979; Harvey 2003; Pellow 2003) and applying them to my case, my dissertation attempts to bring a nuanced perspective to the e-waste debate. My initial findings suggest that both of these frameworks do not account for the key economic processes that are driving the e-waste trade. A better understanding of these processes will better illuminate the pathway to finding meaningful solutions to the persistent, presently illegal global trade in discarded electronics. My data consists of a comprehensive examination of meeting archives from the Basel Convention (where the experts and political decision makers on this issue implement policies that affect the global e-waste trade) spanning from 1992 to the present, as well as reviews of the proceedings of other relevant actors in e-waste policy (for example, annual meetings of the global organization StEP, and publications and pamphlets from trade organizations in the US and abroad and publications from the US government). In addition, I conducted semi-structured interviews with 25 key actors in the national regulatory, global regulatory, industry and NGO spheres in order to understand how the key decision makers in the e-waste trade understand the drivers and implications of the shift "from waste to resources." Finally, I draw on ethnographic observations conducted at a pivotal Basel Convention meeting in 2011, where a decision was made that has the potential to fundamentally reshape the Basel Convention and enable increased global trade in discarded electronics through the development of formalized recycling centers in less-developed countries.