Worlding Electronic Waste

Chapter 5 | Looking Again in a Different Way

How do we know e-waste? This chapter grapples with the inherent indeterminacy at the core of this question. This issue of indeterminacy partly derives from the absence of any non-arbitrary criteria by which to decide what to measure and where to measure it. Typically, e-waste is measured in terms of weight. However, though weight can offer some determinate measure of mass it may tell us little or nothing about toxicity. For example, 1 kilogram of aluminum and 1 kilogram of mercury are identical in terms of weight but completely different in terms of toxicity. E-waste is also largely measured as a post-consumer waste management problem, that is, a question of how many tons of electronics are being put in the waste stream by individuals or households. Yet, quantities of post-consumer discarded electronics are dwarfed by the discards that occur upstream in resource extraction for, and manufacturing of, electronics. If waste from those upstream parts of the existence of electronics were counted when the term e-waste is being used, the problem would look very different than one framed as a problem of what happens after consumers throw away their devices.

What this chapter deals with then is a problem of knowledge-that is, epistemology-with practical consequences. E-waste as a post-consumer problem suggests household recycling as the right solution. However, if most of the waste arising from electronics does so before consumers even purchase their devices, post-consumption recycling will do little or nothing to ameliorate that waste.

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