Volume 47, Issue 1 p. 4-6
Special Section: Peering through loopholes, tracing conversions: remapping the transborder trade in electronic waste. Guest Editors: Peter Wynn Kirby and Anna Lora-Wainwright
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Peering through loopholes, tracing conversions: remapping the transborder trade in electronic waste

Peter Wynn Kirby

Peter Wynn Kirby

School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Oxford, OX1 3QY

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Anna Lora-Wainwright

Anna Lora-Wainwright

School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, Oxford, OX1 3QY

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First published: 05 February 2015
Citations: 7
The information, practices and views in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG).

Interdisciplinary studies of ‘e-waste’ (i.e. electronic waste and residues, also known as WEEE) penetrate to the heart of complex issues that drive present-day human geography: contested mappings; socio-material transformations; ‘epistemic murk’ (Taussig 1987, 127) in field settings; human and non-human assemblages; elite and marginal ethnographic perspectives; varying reckonings of risk and value; policed and permeable borders; and interpretive frictions between qualitative and quantitative data.

Yet scholarly approaches to the traffic in and conversion of e-waste remain distorted by persistent misconceptions regarding the e-waste trade, which this special section seeks both to highlight and analyse, and to some degree redress. Such distortions derive, to an extent, from the outdated regulatory architecture of the 1989 Basel Convention itself, an international treaty intended to restrict shipments of hazardous waste from developed nations to the developing world. Warped understandings of the e-waste trade also stem from highly successful activist reframing of the terms of debate (and in a few cases propagation of flawed data fuelling the debate [see below]), as well as biases over how e-waste is interpreted and appropriated in processing hotspots far from the corridors of policy and governance in capital cities of the OECD.

One such distortion flows from the idea that the e-waste trade is predominantly a transnational problem. Much e-waste eventually crosses at least one national border, as millions of tons of whole or partly dismantled computers, televisions and appliances – or perhaps just their chip-encrusted motherboards – travel to processing sites that extract lucrative precious metals and forms of plastic for resale and reuse. Yet WEEE often iterates extensively within a country, and the environmental justice impact of subnational and regional movements through trading hubs and conversion hotspots remains disproportionately under-examined.

Linked to this issue is a fixation on whether this is trade from developed nations to the developing world. Close mappings of the labyrinthine and asymmetrical e-waste trade can be bewilderingly complex, even at times apparently illegible. However, the e-waste trade between developing nations now dwarfs the broadly imagined transnational flows (see Lepawsky's contribution), a deep-seated misconception driven in large part by an influential report from a prominent e-waste watchdog (Basel Action Network 2002) that vastly overstates shipments of WEEE from the USA to China, for instance. To complicate matters, the Basel Convention puzzlingly designates developing nations like Mexico that import large quantities of North American WEEE as legitimate traders, while sleek and prosperous trading hubs like Singapore and Hong Kong revel in their status as ‘third-world’ entities enabling both licit and illicit regional and global trade (see Lepawsky this issue). China, at once an industrial powerhouse and a developing nation, is not only the ‘world's workshop’ but also a major processing destination for conversion of foreign e-waste; yet the trade in China's domestically produced e-waste is enormous and growing. Furthermore, a great deal of foreign WEEE flows to China from Basel-compliant developing nations in Asia and elsewhere. For instance, Egypt engages in brisk trade in waste plastics with China, exhibiting the strong ‘South–South’ trading vectors that complicate more familiar narratives of ‘North–South’ exploitation (see Furniss this issue).

The co-editors' initial pollutant fieldwork along the distorted social terrain of the world's most notorious e-waste processing node, in South China, left them at times more or less speechless. But little did they know that, as scholars later attempting to describe this deeply troubling social arena, the field milieu would have them literally grasping for words (or rather, for terminology). Kirby and Lora-Wainwright left that first day convinced that the e-waste trade needed to be studied ethnographically in a more neutral (that is, less alarmist and excoriating) manner. Yet the term most often invoked in the literature, ‘scavenging’, bears an undeniable negative connotation, and ‘salvaging’ is arguably equally inappropriate in both Treasure Town and in state-of-the-art processing facilities in Japan, seeing as how the term comes with its own often incongruent ethical associations and legitimising narratives. (‘Recycling’ also seemed counterproductive, with its putatively ‘green’ hue, but of course it remains important to attend to how the term ‘recycling’ is invoked by stakeholders more broadly, usually to garb activities in the raiments of sustainability [see Kirby 2011].) While certainly not fans of indiscriminate neologising, the co-editors discovered that a composite term, ‘scalvaging’, bears deft utility in describing – but neither condemning nor unjustifiably lauding – the conversion activities of those involved in the wide range of human and non-human assemblages and configurations that make up the transnational WEEE trade. This term appears throughout the contributions to the special section. As the strategies of a number of key nations betray a great deal of tension between formal and informal processing of e-waste (see Tong Xin et al. this issue, in the case of China), and because pollution from supposedly eco-conscious formal processing plants can be extremely high, use of the term ‘scalvaging’ helps peel away the sometimes unjustified green veneer of gleaming high-tech WEEE-processing operations in an evolving sector.

Scrutiny of the immensely complex transborder phenomenon of the e-waste trade revealed several important geographical imaginaries that influence conception of the e-waste problem and at times distort the policy responses of national governments and international bodies. As referenced above, the emergent treaty architecture of the Convention separates the planet into Annex VII and non-Annex VII nations, the latter designated as vulnerable developing countries, despite numerous contradictions to this framing (see Lepawsky's contribution). For its part, the European Union's ambitious policy toward WEEE is ‘underpinned by a particular vision of a “circular economy” that both internalises e-waste within formal economic circuits and confines its exchange to the territory of the single market’ (Kama this issue). Yet the boundaries of the EU remain highly permeable, bringing into question both the effectiveness of the policy, at least at this stage, and the interpretive logic of the imaginary itself. Careful analysis of the EU framework therefore furnishes important insights. Japan lacks the political integration of the EU but has long desired a guiding policy role in East and Southeast Asia, complicated immensely by its aggressive imperial conquest of many of the same nations before and during World War II. Contemporary Japan has, in the past decade, put forward a bold and controversial plan for mobilising transborder trading and ‘scalvaging’ of WEEE (see Kirby and Lora-Wainwright this issue) that envisions a dynamic network of special economic zones. These both create a market for e-waste conversion and facilitate profitable technology transfer for Japanese corporations. The plan, which faces challenges from powerful partner-nations like China with their own regional policy agendas, exhibits the interpretive force of such geographical imaginaries and the importance of their painstaking analysis, as the contributors to this special section achieve.

The aforementioned Basel Convention is a makeshift, porous and at times ambiguously worded agreement, perforated with loopholes that nations manipulate to benefit from the frequently lucrative waste trade. Looking at the etymology of the word ‘loophole’ (e.g. OED 1989), we can see that the term not only indexes metaphorical treaty gaps and defects that facilitate evasion of contractual obligations but originally referred to apertures like portholes and arrow-slits that, for the social scientist, can furnish windows for interpretation and understanding. To be sure, the Basel Convention has become a clunky anachronism of a treaty, facilitating all manner of problematic export of hazardous waste it was putatively designed to prevent. Yet scrutinising how nations exploit (and justify) these loopholes (e.g. Kirby and Lora-Wainwright this issue) adds a relatively novel and important register of analysis that can provide insights into political motives, cultural dispositions and internal pressures of great significance to the study of e-waste flows in increasingly resource-fixated contexts.

All these issues, and more, animate the contributions to this special section, written by a cohesive and provocative selection of the top social scientists working on e-waste in English. Each from its own interpretive vantage, yet combining to offer complementary analytical insights, the papers not only furnish cutting-edge empirical studies and analyses but also provide several expert perspectives on potential policy solutions. This coherent selection of compelling projects offers striking glimpses of the relentless material and cultural dynamics of the transborder e-waste trade as lived in key processing nodes. It also highlights macro-level tensions within and between important regions and supranational groupings such as the EU, the Asia Pacific and North America, along the way envisioning the contours and characteristics of an emergent ‘post-Basel world’.