From first use, to the trash bin, to beyond, our electronic appliances travel long journeys in their life-cycles, often becoming “e-waste,” or electronic waste. Unfortunately, the same chemical compounds that made these appliances resistant, fireproof, or even functional—like lead, mercury, and various synthetic organics—become extremely toxic, mobile, and resistant in the environment, prompting harmful health effects for all life within reach.

The burden of these health risks also often falls upon poor communities in developing countries. Concern as to environmental harms creates a disincentive for mature economies to remove chemical residues before exporting, which means that, often legally and other times illegally, copious amounts of this dangerous waste finds itself in developing countries, such as China, India, and parts of Africa, where it is processed and recycled.

Though a large body of research exists on the environmental and human health impacts of e-waste, little research exists on its social and economic dimensions, which appear to be great. Speaking to this emerging issue of the Information Age, Anna Lora-Wainwright recently detailed her project, in partnership with Peter Wynn Kirby, on e-waste trade flows between China and Japan at a lecture sponsored by the Harvard University Asia Center and co-sponsored by the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies and the Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies.

Concern as to environmental harms creates a disincentive for mature economies to remove chemical residues before exporting, which means that, often legally and other times illegally, copious amounts of this dangerous waste finds itself in developing countries, such as China, India, and parts of Africa, where it is processed and recycled.

An Associate Professor in the Human Geography of China at Oxford University, Anna began the talk with a bit of clarification—that e-waste flows connect not only developing countries with developed countries, but also between developing countries themselves. Uneven gains and losses also exist at the facility-level, between workshop bosses and workers, who are often migrants. This makes labeling e-waste as a simply environmental justice issue between developed and undeveloped countries more difficult, if not inaccurate altogether. Additionally, she explained, there is large opportunity for citizens in poorer countries to make money, so simply shutting down these trade flows is also a difficult case to make.

Anna continued to explain that Japan and China have highly different regulations on e-waste. In Japan, workers at a Panasonic e-waste facility work to turn e-waste into “non-waste,” allowing the final waste product to move across national bounds. Many loopholes exist in Japan’s “circular economy,” however, and what falls out of formal processing finds itself in the informal sector, in which little regulation and precaution direct how e-waste is processed.

In China, Anna observed the workings of an informal processing unit, located in a community in which 80% of the population was in involved in the e-waste business. Questioning the divide between the formal and informal sectors of the e-waste business in her studies, Anna stressed that we need a “natural history of electronics—that is to say, a full knowledge of their material journeys, however non-linear those journeys might be." Anna continued that, from an outside perspective, we shouldn’t condemn the workers in the informal sector—the “scalvagers”—as immoral, but rather as figures in a murky, undetermined area, about which we know little about from the inside out.

We need a “natural history of electronics—that is to say, a full knowledge of their material journeys, however non-linear those journeys might be." 

Seeking to better outline this “inside out” perspective, Anna also profiled the scalvagers themselves in her work. Rooted in poverty, workers were not certain about the dangerous effects of handling the materials, and only resorted to scalvaging as a means for economic survival. Many feel that, in these areas, far greater sources of pollution demand far greater amount of attention, and are frustrated about the attention given to this informal sector. Additionally, a lack of trust in the government and its monopoly on “green technology” to handle e-waste has thickened the divide between decision makers and citizens. Surely, as Anna concluded, we need, instead, a social and political infrastructural change to dismantle the system that supports scalvaging, however difficult.

Though I had known that electronics often have complicated and non-linear life cycles to their ends, Anna’s lecture had given me a new moral and ethical lens with which to view e-waste. I had learned that labelling the issue of e-waste in these countries as an issue of environmental justice was simplistic, and avoided some of the narrative of the scalvager himself.

Though I had known that electronics often have complicated and non-linear life cycles to their ends, Anna’s lecture had given me a new moral and ethical lens with which to view e-waste.

Instead, it appears that scalvagers navigate a halfway point between “victim” and “villain.” But, as I reflect upon my own role in the life-cycle of e-waste, I was reminded of the great privilege many citizens of developed nations possess. Much of their waste never in their own backyards, but often in those less fortunate, and torn between dangerous health effects and economic survival.