The difficulties for measuring the international trade and traffic of e-waste are many, but can be summarized as follows:
- There is no universally agreed upon definition of e-waste.
- No existing international trade data directly distinguishes between new and used electronics.
- Illicit and other forms of unrecorded or misrecorded trade aren't captured in trade data.
These three difficulties ensure that the use of international trade data make a variety of things visible, but at the cost of much, much more being or becoming invisible. But there is more here to be said, about the 'international', about what is going on methodologically when state-centric data are used to track e-waste.
One of the key entities that are generated by international trade data are states 'themselves'. Data I use in several of my papers are from state based statistical agencies and collected by an international body: the United Nations Commission on Trade and Development (COMTRADE). In that data the fundamental units are 'territories', one cannot disaggregate to a more fine grained detail in such data. Most often, these territories in the COMTRADE data are states, but there are some non-state territories that are also interesting for how they flag up the 'state' as an arbitrary category by which to group data. A non-exhaustive list of examples of these other territorial groupings include "United States Minor Outlying Islands", "Other Asia nes (not elsewhere specified), "North Africa, nes", and "Occ. Palestinian Terr." (as in Occupied Palestinian Territories).
The inability to disaggregate such data into other scales, especially intra-territorial ones such as 'the urban' has major consequences for how we know e-waste via trade data. Much of the e-waste debate is couched in terms of so-called 'developed' countries dumping waste in 'developing' countries. As such the issue of e-waste is framed at the scale of international relations. A consequence of that framing and all the data collected at that scale is that we are blind to the growing rise of 'middle-class' consumers within 'developing' countries, particularly in urban centres, that can and do purchase new and used electronics domestically - and have been doing so for some time - before subsequently ridding themselves of them; we're also blind to the fact that such sites have major institutional users of electronics - banks, hospitals, government offices - that are important domestic sources of discarded electronics. So by framing the issue of e-waste in terms of international trade we partially format the phenomenon in such a way that is not necessarily the most relevant to it. For example, a recent multi-method study of e-waste in Ghana - site of the infamous Agbogbloshie 'dump' - found that more than half of electronic discards in the country are from domestic sources, not imports of e-waste (Amoyaw-Osei et al. 2011).
More generally, we can say that trade data, in its statistical grouping work, forces us to consider what statisticians refer to in technical language as the 'ecological fallacy'. This is the error of making inferences about individuals that belong to a statistical aggregate - like a state - and where the individuals in question happen to be states themselves that have been aggregated into groups like 'developed' and 'developing' countries and the like. The latter issue raises a second: the modifiable areal unit problem (or MAUP), which amounts to a form of geographical and statistical indeterminacy (there are others, see Kwan, 2012) in which one can arrive at different summary figures (such as totals, rates, or proportions) that change based on how the boundaries are drawn to define group membership. The problem is those boundary definitions are arbitrary and cannot help but be thus. While these two issues might seem confined to the arid realms of statistical arcana, versions of them play out directly in real laws and policies designed to institute trade restrictions on e-waste imports/exports between various territorial groupings such as 'developed' and 'developing' countries, Organization of Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) and non-OECD countries, or under the Basel Convention, Annex VII and non-Annex VII countries (see Lepawsky and McNabb, 2010; Lepawsky, 2012; Lepawsky, 2014).