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Visualizing Transboundary Shipments of E-waste
Interactive cartograms of the e-waste trade.
How are the international trade and traffic of electronic waste organized?The interactive cartograms below are a partial answer to that question. They depict the organization of trade and traffic in 1996 and 2012, the earliest and latest dates for currently available data. These visualizations are an interactive version of work published as part of the Reassembling Rubbish project in peer-reviewed academic journals. A brief introduction to the findings of this work is available here.
For readers who may be interested, the full articles are available free without subscription at the following links:
Lepawsky, Josh. 2014. “The Changing Geography of Global Trade in Electronic Discards: Time to Rethink the E-Waste Problem.” The Geographical Journal, April, n/a–n/a. doi:10.1111/geoj.12077. Click here for paper.
Lepawsky, Josh, and Chris McNabb. 2010. “Mapping International Flows of Electronic Waste.” The Canadian Geographer 54 (2): 177–95. Click here for paper.
What do the cartograms show?
The cartograms depict data available from the United Nations Statistics Division's "COMTRADE" database. The data are organized into territories and the flows of e-waste that connect them. Territories are colour coded to reflect their status under Annex VII of the Basel Convention (blue for Annex VII territories and yellow for non-Annex VII territories). The larger the circle representing a given territory (e.g., Canada) the more other territories report receiving e-waste shipments from it. Readers not already familiar with the significance of the division between Annex VII and non-Annex VII territories are invited to download the publications above, both of which provide discussion about this issue.
The flow lines depict the volume and direction of e-waste flows between territories. To understand flow direction, follow flow lines in a clockwise direction from one node to another. The thicker the flow lines, the larger the volume of the flow. Currently the software used to create the cartograms (discussed below) does not easily allow labeling of the flows (i.e., displaying the actual number representing the weight of the flow volume).
The data come with some extremely important caveats and limits. These are discussed fully in the Methods section of Lepawsky (2014, free access). In summary, the caveats and limits of the data include:
- The data show information only for "waste batteries and scrap of primary batteries and electrical accumulators" (technically referred to as Harmonised System 2002 code 854810).
- The data are import transactions reported by a given territory. In other words, these are data showing what Territory "A" says it receives as an import from another territory or territories in a given year (e.g., from Territories "B", "C", and "D").
- The data miss unreported trade (whether licit or illicit).
- The data visualized here are best understood as proxy measurements of overall transboundary shipments of electronic discards.
How do I use the cartograms?
To view the cartograms, move your mouse over one of the cartograms and click the "Source" button when it appears beneath it. This will open the cartogram in a full sized window (they do not have full functionality on mobile platforms). Also:
- Ensure that you have the latest version of java and an up to date browser running.
- Hover the mouse over a cartogram. When you see the option for "Source" appear beneath the cartogram, click on it. This will launch the cartogram in a full browser window.
- In the full cartogram you can click a given territory (e.g., Canada) and its trade network will be highlighted and a side-bar with additional information will pop-up.
- Read flow lines in a clockwise direction from a given territory to the territory(ies) that report receiving shipments of e-waste from it.
- The years 1996 and 2012 are used to show changes in the organization of transboundary shipments of e-waste over time. A brief overview of those changes is available here. Detailed interpretations of these changes are available in Lepawsky (2014, free access).
How were the cartograms produced?
A full discussion of the methods used to build these visualizations is available in Lepawsky (2014, free access). To summarize the process:
- Data were downloaded from COMTRADE and organized in a spreadsheet.
- The organized data were imported into Gephi, a free open-source network analysis software.
- The networks created in Gephi were exported using Sigmajs Exporter, a Gephi plugin produced by the Oxford Internet Institute.
The Gephi networks exported using Sigmajs Exporter currently have some limitations that control the 'look' of the cartograms. These are largely aesthetic, but do have some implications for interpreting the cartograms. For example, it is not currently possible with Sigmajs Exporter to display the value of trade flows (e.g., with a data value adjacent to a given flow line). Thus interpretation of trade volumes is currently limited to visual comparisons of flow line thickness (thicker lines equal greater volumes of flow and vice versa). Also, some flow line colours render inconsistently. This is an artefact of the Sigmajs Exporter plugin and amounts to an aesthetic issue and should not be interpreted as having anything to do with the underlying data.
An Introduction to Reassembling Rubbish
The opening page into this project.
Reassembling Rubbish is a research project lead by Dr. Josh Lepawsky in the Department of Geography at Memorial University of Newfoundland. At its core is a five year examination of the issue of electronic discards ('e-waste'). That issue entangles the project with a plethora of topics and themes associated with waste- or discard-studies beyond electronics. You may be interested to read about these themes and topics in our research magazine.
The research questions driving the project include:
- What is the ‘right’ thing to do with e-waste? Where, how, and under what conditions should electronics be recycled?
- How might a better understanding of the knowledge, skills, and creativity of workers in foreign markets, who re-imagine and rework electronics disposed of in Canada and elsewhere into new commodities, lead to a rethinking of electronic waste as a potential source of value?
- Is a system of ‘ethical’ or ‘fair’ trade in e-waste – which would include, inter alia, material and component recovery as well as repair, refurbishing, and reuse of machines – a viable alternative to the existing strategies of national and international legal prohibitions against e-waste exports from ‘developed’ to ‘developing’ countries? If so, what would such a system of trade look like and how would it be regulated/governed?
Publications related to this project
Lepawsky, Josh. 2014. The Changing Geography of Global Trade in Electronic Discards: time to rethink the e-waste problem. The Geographical Journal. DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12077 (Open Access: video abstract and article).
Lepawsky, Josh. 2014. Time to rethink the e-waste problem. Geography Directions Blog.
Lepawsky, Josh. 2012. Legal geographies of e-waste legislation in Canada and the US: Jurisdiction, responsibility and the taboo of production. Geoforum. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2012.03.006 (Open Access article)
Lepawsky, Josh and Billah, M. 2011. Making Chains that (Un)make Things: waste-value relations and the Bangladeshi rubbish electronics industry. Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography. 93 (2), p. 121-139 (Open Access: article)
Lepawsky, Josh and Mather, C. 2011. From Beginnings and Endings to Boundaries and Edges: rethinking circulation and exchange through electronic waste. Area. 43 (3), p. 242-249 (Open Access: video abstract and article)
Lepawsky, Josh and C. McNabb. 2010. Mapping the international trade and traffic of electronic waste. The Canadian Geographer. 54 (2), 177-195 (Open Access: article)