Reassembling Rubbish

How do we know e-waste? Electronic discards, the double social life of methods, and their gamut of Othernesses.

I opened this path with Law's notion of the double social life of methods. As we've moved along I've shown a variety of ways that particular methods relevant to the study of e-waste make some versions of it present (that dual movement of making some things present and others absent) - documentary photos and video bring forth environmental harm, elicit feelings of empathy and guilt; trade statistics manifest visible flows between states - and all these methods make absent other ways of knowing waste. Common to all of them, for example, is the fabrication of e-waste as an end-of-pipe problem, that is, something that happens only after users (most often understood to be consumers or households or sometimes, but less frequently, businesses and institutions) rid themselves of their electronic items. So other ways of cutting into 'the' e-waste problem (say, as one of design or raw material extraction or manufacturing discards or toxic body loadings for assembly line workers) disappear. Sometimes this disappearance is a manifest absence, that is, it is more or less a conscious choice by a researcher so as to focus on a particular problem so construed. Other times it isn't. But we shouldn't forget that for Law (2004, 2009) the Othernesses that are entangled with the double social life of method include what I tried to clarify as 'non-manifest absences', absences in other words that happen, that are in some sense necessary, but about which a researcher is not - and indeed, within a given method assemblage fundamentally cannot - be aware of without a switch to another method assemblage altogether.

Again the point may seem abstract, but it is a crucial one for coming to appreciate the work that methods - any methods - do toward partially formatting the thing they claim to only study, that is, the work they do toward rendering determinate a world (or worlds) that might be fundamentally indeterminate. Here is an example of what I mean. In 2011, a group of Chinese scientists published a paper describing a novel bacterium "isolated from a sludge sample collected from an electronic waste recycling site" (An et al 2011: 9148). This bacterium is able to biodegrade tetrabromobisphenol-A (TBBPA), a brominated flame retardant. In effect, this bacterium, an unknown strain until An et al's (2011) study, can metabolize and breakdown a compound that has been shown to be a human endocrine disruptor, acutely toxic to algae, mollusks, crustaceans, and fish; and which leaks into and bioaccumulates in air, water, and soil. Yet, this bacterium, a form of life of which we have little understanding and over which we have little control, has learned or is learning to live off of compounds in discarded electronics (and much else besides, TBBA is a widely used flame retardant).

Understanding this much brings us to Othernesses not just beyond how we know e-waste, but fundamentally outside our capacity to know at all. As Myra Hird (2012) argues, bacterial interactions with our discards, such as leachate from landfills, occur along biological, chemical, and geological horizons fundamentally beyond our capacity to know. Yet as Clark and Hird (2013) remind us, human life is premised on, not just interdependent with (though it is that too), bacterial life. There are possibilities for Othernesses of e-waste here that are so Other they are fundamentally unknowable. Indeed, it seems indeterminacy - the opposite of what our methods attempt to institute - is a fundamental property of that which is enacted as waste (Hird 2013). And what of the highly asymmetrical ramifying relations (very firmly in favour of bacterial, rather than human flourishing) that might result? What might these 'dark ecologies' (Clark and Hird, 2013) be and mean when they are something other than we can fully know?

A Question and a Response

After my presentation Jennifer Gabrys asked me a question. She wanted to know whether the way I was working with the issue of the double social life of methods meant I was also claiming that different forms of evidencing might mobilize different forms of politics or practices in relation to electronic waste. To summarize my spontaneous response at the time: yes. Here are a some additional thoughts.

Another part of Jennifer's question was about the status of 'indeterminacy' in my presentation and the work it is developing. She wanted to know whether part of the point, as it were, is to assert indeterminacy of e-waste as waste. Indeterminacy for its own sake is not what I am after because it is too easy and too dangerous. Asserting indeterminacy and leaving it at that shapes the exchange into basically the same form that climate science/climate denial talk takes. We cannot foreclose on action because we don't have certain knowledge. The only way we will have certain knowledge of climate change is after it has happened. It is this kind of fundamental indeterminacy with which we must deal - we must find ways to act in spite (or perhaps because of) that indeterminacy.

Jennifer has a fantastic idea in her book, Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics, where she writes that because some form of remainder always occurs (be it in raw material extraction, manufacturing, logistics, consumption, or discard management) and the idea of zero waste is a mythic impossibility, we need to learn to 'waste well'. This is, I think, a profound point. What would it mean to waste well? We don't know yet (and who this 'we' is is itself an important question). Zsuzsa Gille (2007) argues that the public conversation about waste management has to be changed so that it can also be about how that-which-will-become-waste is produced in the first place. If the conversation doesn't shift in that direction then, she argues, the best democracy can do is regulate waste that is already produced. Her suggestion is that production itself must be democratized, though she stops short of laying out a plan of how to do that. However, this idea of democratizing production, in the sense of pushing public action inside the factory gate, is not as utopic as it might sound since it is in some ways happening already. Think of the European Union's (EU) Reduction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) regulations. They stipulate that the use of certain compounds in manufacturing must be reduced or eliminated where alternatives exist. So RoHS does have a real effect on how that which will become waste is produced in the first place. The EU's Regulation on Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) legislation does similar work. RoHS and REACH are not panaceas - they do nothing to change, say, the intensity of work on the factory floor in the EU or elsewhere - but they are two examples that show us democratizing production is not mere utopic daydreaming (I've written a bit about related issues here). What if, as is the case with pharmaceuticals, manufacturers had to prove the material safety of their products before they could be manufactured for sale? In other words, we (there's that problematic grouping again ... 'we' who?) already accept that one multi-billion dollar industry should have to jump the hurdle of showing its products are safe before they may be manufactured and put out for sale, so why not others? Why shouldn't electronics manufacturers have to prove that the materials of which their products are made pose no threat to the health of humans or other biological beings?  Yes, pharmaceutical companies find ways to get around the public health principles that regulate them, but nevertheless there are laws that have been written that require them to prove safety before manufacture and sale. It's a model - flawed for sure - but it exists. If it exists, then it is possible. And if it exists, it can also be modified and improved.

Flagging up the indeterminacy of e-waste is not enough. We need to find ways to act in an uncertain, indeterminate world (see Callon et al, 2009) or worlds (see Law, 2011).  My intent in this presentation - and as I increasingly understand my own project - is to not just describe, but to interfere (see Law, 2009; Munk and Abrahamsson, 2012) with the phenomenon I purport to study (electronic discards). So, for example, in this presentation I explored the work done by different methods used to know e-waste, that is, to make claims to authoritative knowledge about it. While apparently very different from one another, all of these methods - documentary photography and film, trade statistics - all rely on the literary technique of modest witnessing. This is the case, too, in a forthcoming paper where I mobilize trade statistics to question - to interfere with - the often taken for granted assumption that 'the' problem with e-waste is that it is dumped from 'developed' to 'developing' countries.

Instead of trying to solve 'the e-waste problem', it might be useful to modify this injunction into a question: how might e-waste be done carefully? Some minimal responses to that question would, I think, include:
  • Questioning the utility and effects of trade bans.
  • Interrogating the claims that posit industrial recycling of electronics (i.e., 'shredding') as a responsible e-waste management system.
  • Investigating the potential of repair, reuse, and recovery practices for dealing with electronic discards already generated.
  • Examining the roles and extent of waste, discards, and remainders generated in electronics manufacturing, in contrast to e-waste as strictly a post-consumption problem.
  • Finding ways to interfere in how the production of electronics manufactures that-which-will-become-waste so that it may become a clean(er), safe(r) set of practices.
In attempting to interfere in these ways, my research into electronic discards is a way of engaging with issues well beyond that of electronic discards, but which are - I am convinced - of fundamental import: how to devise a renewed 'contract' (as Mol calls it) between practices that deliberate over means and ends ('politics') and practices that deliberate over truth and falsity ('science').

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