E-waste: The Real “Master Narrative”

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“I wear brown clothes (different kinds of brown) and carry a grey backpack”, writes Yvan Schulz in an email before I’m about to meet him for an interview. He’s an anthropologist and PhD candidate who’s researching e-waste in China. When I meet him during the afternoon coffee break, he not only wears brownish clothes but also stylish brown-colored eyeglasses, which makes him look more like a media-guy than e-waste specialist.

E-waste—a term that stands for electrical and electronic waste, such as computers, phones and TVs—is a hot topic in sustainability studies. But right away, Schulz tells me that there’s more to e-waste than meets the eye. The electrical equipment on a plane for example, does not count as e-waste. “The boundary of what’s e-waste and what’s not is quite arbitrary”, he says.

Only about 20 % of Americans recycle their e-waste: to safely dismantle electrical gadgets is a time-consuming task. Thus, much of the e-waste ends up being dumped in developing countries, without much reflection on the environmental consequences.

Yvan Schulz on e-waste: "This is the master narrative."


Yvan Schulz on e-waste: "This is the master narrative."

“This is the master narrative”, Schulz says and looks as if he is a bit tired. He goes on to explain that, in his opinion, most experts are missing an important piece of the puzzle in their analyses: Namely, the role of the informal sector. Research, he says, tends to focus on large-scale recycling schemes instead of the guy who gathers all the cables and burns them to get the copper.

He mentions when he went to a conference about e-waste in Beijing. “It was a three-day event, but the informal sector was only mentioned 4-5 times, using 1-3 sentences.” Most of it was negative, portraying the informal sector as the “bad guys”. He looks a bit frustrated and says: “You have a room full of experts, but no one recognizes the informal sector, instead blame them for causing pollution”. He continues and says that the more you stigmatise one sector, the opposite (i.e. the formal sector) will appear as ’clean’ and as the good alternative. Yet the process of large plants recycling e-waste is not clean process: “it creates a lot of dust”.

Secondly he says that another problem with this narrative is that all developing countries are different. For example, Ghana has a very large informal sector. On the other hand, a country like China has both a large informal sector but it also has large plants for recycling.

There is currently a push towards formalized recycling plants. China for example is not going in the direction of valuing the informal sector, instead, like most developed countries, it is building large factories to deal with the waste. One of the reasons is that the Chinese government wants to make money out of this industry, but the informal sector doesn’t pay tax, therefore, with large factories to handle the old computers the government can make more money.

What about the WRF? Does the experts at WRF also ignore the informal sector? I decide to join the session on ‘Sustainable Metal Management and Resources’ and indeed, no speaker, except for Matthias Schleup, Programme manager and scientist at Empa (Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technologyactually) brings up the informal sector. “25 000 people work in the informal plastic recycling sector in New Dehli, India”, he says. “But the uncontrolled conditions in the informal sector result in various dangerous consequences.

For example, open cable burning is a major source of dioxides”. Yet he doesn’t say it in a way that puts blame on the thousands of people that work in this sector, rather, as if they are being exploited. Yvan seems to agree that the polluters to focus on are companies, not individuals. “A lot of companies today don’t care about the waste they create,” he says. “They should be more responsible”.

Although sugar may not appear to have much in common e-waste, Schleup mentions an example of how, in the past, one company tried to reduce its negative social impact and use that as a selling point at home.

He refers us to 1825 slogan of The East India Sugar Company – “Sugar without slavey”, and shows their marketing materials: By six families using East India instead of West India sugar one less slave is required; surely to release a fellow-creature from a state of cruel bondage and misery, by so small a sacrifice, is worthy of the attention at all”.

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