My eye is caught by a recent news headline that proclaims “U.S. Isn’t Flooding the Third World with E-waste“. In the article, journalist Adam Minter – who in January spoke at the RGS-IBG Monday Night Lecture series – reports that the export of e-waste from the US is a trickle, rather than the flood it is often portrayed to be in a variety of NGO reports, news media, and academic publications. Tracing global flows of e-waste is a challenging task, one I take up most recently in The Geographical Journal.
After an analysis of 16 years of trade data for 206 territories and more than 9400 trade transactions, I’ve found that, indeed, it is necessary to rethink common representations of e-waste flows. Instead of a flood of e-waste flowing from so-called ‘developed’ countries to ‘developing’ countries, between 73-82 percent of total flows are traded between countries designated as ‘Annex VII’ signatories (the EU, OECD, and Lichtenstein) to the Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal - a key international agreement regulating the trade of hazardous wastes, including e-waste. More importantly, I’ve found that flows from ‘developing’ to ‘developed’ countries – the opposite of the usual e-waste storyline - grew substantially over the 16 years of available data. Indeed, flows of e-waste from non-Annex VII territories (or ‘developing’ countries’) to Annex VII territories (‘developed’ countries) climbed from just of 6.5 million kilograms in 1996 to over 140 million kilograms in 2012.
These findings offer crucial conceptual and policy insights into the issue of e-waste. Conceptually, the intense focus on e-waste dumping means that efforts at amelioration remain fixated on end-of-pipe solutions. As a consequence, insufficient effort is directed by those concerned about e-waste toward changing how the extraction of raw materials for them, their design, manufacturing, or their durability is done. Policies premised on halting the flow of e-waste from the global ‘North’ to the global ‘South’ via industrial recycling mean that a variety of environmental and economic benefits of repairing, reusing, and refurbishing digital equipment are destroyed. Moreover, trade bans like those envisioned under the Basel Convention, are increasingly irrelevant to present and likely future e-waste trade patterns – such trade is occurring almost entirely in directions that are either permissible under extant rules or in patterns not even imagined by those rules to be worthy of regulation. It is time to rethink the e-waste problem.
About the Author: Josh Lepawsky is a Professor in cultural, economic & political geography at the Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.
Lepawsky, J. (2014), The changing geography of global trade in electronic discards: time to rethink the e-waste problem. The Geographical Journal. doi: 10.1111/geoj.12077
Minter, A., U.S. Isn’t Flooding the Third World With E-Waste, Bloomberg View, 26 May 2013.
Minter, A., Our junkyard planet: travels in the secret trash trade, RGS-IBG Monday Night Lecture Series, 20 January 2014. [Members and Fellows of the Society can re-watch this lecture online].