Reassembling Rubbish

Mapping E-waste as a Controversy: Following a Floating Statement

A floating statement can be any kind of utterance--in text, image, audio, what have you. The point of paying attention to them is to develop an understanding of the conditions that enabled a floating statement to be uttered. In the case of the BAN statement about 50-80 percent of e-waste being exported, understanding those conditions is simple up to a point, after which things get decidedly more complicated.

On another part of this path I explored how the literary strategy of modest witnessing is at work in Minter's (2013) article, the United States International Trade Commission (2013) report, and the BAN report Exporting Harm (2002). To follow a floating statement, it needs time to travel and here is where some differences come in with these three documents. Exporting Harm and its claims about the 50-80 percent export figure have been in circulation for over a decade. This makes the report's travels much easier to trace using classic techniques of citation analysis. A visual summary of the process can be found below and a more detailed explanation follows.

Now, just because a document is cited a lot does not by itself mean that it is influential. All those other papers citing the BAN report might be doing that so as to show the report's shortcomings. However, as someone who knows the e-waste literature well (I'd like to think), I also know that the BAN report is often cited as part of what I might call the justificatory sweep of many e-waste article's opening paragraphs where they 'set the scene' for the reported research that follows in a given paper. What does vary somewhat in how the BAN report is cited in the literature is the degree to which the 50-80 percent export figure is taken as established fact. Sometimes a paper will cite the BAN report as if that 50-80 percent figure is well established fact. Other papers will cite the report with some kind of qualification. This is what I and my co-author did in our first paper on the e-waste trade (Lepawsky and McNabb, 2010). There we qualified our citation of BAN (and other related environmental NGO reports) by writing that these groups "allege" the veracity of their estimates of e-waste exports. It was the BAN report that had initially drawn my attention to e-waste as a matter of concern, roughly around the time I was finishing my PhD in 2005. In reading the BAN report and others, I was interested, for sure, in their claims but I did not yet understand the trustworthiness of those claims. In that uncertainty was a good chunk of the impetus behind developing a research program around e-waste.

By following BAN's claim that 50-80 percent of e-waste collected in the western US is actually exported, a very interesting trajectory emerges: by 2009 that figure reaches the status of fact in a US Congressional hearing on electronic waste (United States Congress, 2009). In that hearing the Basel Action Network is referred to explicitly in the "Background" section of the hearing as follows: "According to the Basel Action Network (BAN), approximately 80 percent of the e-waste directed to recycling in the U.S. is not recycled, but is instead exported" (United States Congress, 2009, no page number). Note some important shifts that occurs here. It is the upper estimate (80 percent) of the BAN figure that is reported. It is qualified with the adverb "approximately". And export is taken to be evidence of an absence of recycling ("...not recycled, but is instead exported"). Later in the hearing in the text of a prepared speech Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas states, "It really is stunning to know that United States exports 80 percent of its electronic waste to other countries" (United States Congress, 2009, no page number). So, within this hearing we can witness the variable veracity (what Latour would call the 'factishness') of the 50-80 percent figure claimed by BAN. In the hearing background material that figure is an approximation. For Representative Johnson it is a known fact. Thus, since the release of Exporting Harm in 2002, the 50-80 percent export figure as a floating statement exhibits several variations and a range of veracity:

"[i]nformed industry insiders have indicated that around 80% of what  comes through their doors will be exported to Asia, and 90% of that has  been destined for China" (BAN, 2002: 11)

"[v]ery knowledgeable and informed industry sources, however, have  estimated that around 80% of what is diverted to recycling [in the US]  is actually exported to Asia" (BAN, 2002: 14).

Then, in the 2009 US Congressional hearing:

"According to the Basel Action Network (BAN), approximately 80 percent  of the e-waste directed to recycling in the U.S. is not recycled, but is instead exported" (United States Congress, 2009, no page number).

"It really is stunning to know that United States exports 80 percent of  its electronic waste to other countries" (United States Congress, 2009,  no page number).

Instead of a matter of fact--if by fact is meant a settled issue on which everyone agrees--it is helpful to conceptualize the 50-80 percent figure as a matter of concern. That way, we can continue to follow the action that the travels of that figure leaves in its wake (as Latour might say)--and learn from what that action reveals about e-waste as a controversy and the degree of partisanship of the various actors in the debate.

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