Volume 47, Issue 1 p. 40-47
Special Section: Peering through loopholes, tracing conversions: remapping the transborder trade in electronic waste. Guest Editors: Peter Wynn Kirby and Anna Lora-Wainwright

Exporting harm, scavenging value: transnational circuits of e-waste between Japan, China and beyond

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: 09 December 2014
Citations: 30
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)

Abstract

Alternately cherished as a valuable resource and reviled as toxic and/or worthless detritus, depending on one's cultural vantage, e-waste comprises the scratched, dented, tarnished flipside of the lucrative consumer electronics industry. This article focuses attention on flows of e-waste from Japan to East Asia, scrutinising channels of production, consumption, reuse and conversion. First, the authors interpret the rhetoric of recycling and sustainability mobilised by Japanese interests to facilitate Asian trade in hazardous wastes, creating what detractors say is a pernicious form of ‘waste colonialism’. Next, the researchers scrutinise the discursively linked creation in Japan, since 2001, of a network of state-of-the-art WEEE processing facilities, in particular Panasonic's flagship PETEC, which they studied in 2013. They then turn to the protean material flows and the makeshift configurations engendered by e-waste itself – not only pollutant when scavenged but frequently lucrative and welcome in de-manufacturing hotspots in China – and analyse the circulation of scavenged ‘resources’ in the researchers' fieldsite in the world's most notorious e-waste processing node, in Guangdong Province, where the team conducted ethnographic fieldwork intermittently during 2012–13. China's grand initiative of converting to state-controlled formal processing, with Panasonic's assistance, facilitates a cross-cultural comparison of tensions between formal and informal conversion against the backdrop of the flawed Basel Convention regime, relevant to a range of societies. The paper argues that a relatively ‘neutral’ ethnographic approach to e-waste furnishes significant insight into thorny issues surrounding reckonings of risk and value in varying contexts and responses from those actually immersed in the processing trade, yielding important policy perspective.