Reassembling Rubbish

Worlding Electronic Waste

Here is an audiovisual presentation of a talk I gave at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC on May 30, 2014. The abstract of the talk below gives you a sense of what I cover.


Mapping the international trade of e-waste over time shows us that patterns of e-waste generation and distribution are shifting away from a Global North to Global South orientation. Charting the journeys of e-waste in countries such as Bangladesh, Ghana, and Singapore illuminates vast recovery economies premised on repair and remanufacturing of electronic discards. Such chartings interfere with the dominant storyline about e-waste that represent it as predominantly about waste dumping from rich countries of the Global North in poor countries of the Global South. At the same time, however, there is a need to consider the spots left blank by maps of e-waste that treat it only as a post-consumer, end-of-pipe problem. Indeed, doing so reveals much about what proposed solutions to the e-waste problem, such as recycling, both enable and constrain. The current framing of solutions to the e-waste problem may lead to more consumers, households, and businesses diverting increasing volumes of their discarded electronics from landfills to recycling systems. On the other hand, such approaches will neither do much to increase the durability, reusability, or repairability of electronic products; nor will they enhance working conditions or reduce the material and energy throughput and its attendant wastes in electronics manufacturing. More broadly, what a consideration of both the maps of e-waste and their blank spots does is show that treating electronic discards as waste is a ‘worlding’--a set of practices that gather together a jumble of unlike things (e.g., electronic products, corporations, consumers, citizens, workers, labor conditions, and moral injunctions to ‘do the right thing’) and treats them as if they all inhabit the same common world. Yet that world as such could be organized otherwise. Thus, mapping the journeys of electronic waste qua waste is an entry point into fundamental ethical issues of how to live well together.

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