The book contributes to academic research on value creation (with the case of electronic waste). It does not put politics at the heart of the analysis. But they are an essential part of the debate. High-tech at the end therefore also suggests several approaches to reassemble the politics of e-waste. The aim is a differentiated critique that integrates and mobilises actors. The aim is also to develop new ideas and let them grow (jump directly to this point).
First, however, two hurdles must be overcome.
Firstly, the current discussion of e-waste puts too much emphasis on individual responsibility. It is not crucial to question every single consumer act. The discussion of personal decisions even distracts from political forces. The US-American discard studies researcher Samantha MacBride has coined the term “busy-ness” for this. She uses it to describe an environmental activism that “consciously” reflects on certain decisions and shows a lot of commitment. This is a great resource. But above all, she sees ineffective, busy individuals who use their energies inefficiently. The zealous environmental activism surrounding electronic waste all too easily overlooks the responsibility of industrial actors.
Individual consumption produces little waste, especially little toxic waste. This can be traced back to industrial practices. However, consumers have little or no influence on the working and production methods of industry. Much more effective than buying a gadget advertised as sustainable is therefore to influence the balance of power and collective orders that change industrial routines – recognising waste prevention as a comprehensive challenge with unequally distributed responsibility. Certain problematic ways of life can be questioned, but advocacy here should always go beyond individual behavioural routines.
Another example of busy individuals – and a second hurdle – is the contemporary obsession with export data. When e-waste is discussed in the media, the focus is often on e-waste, which travels around the world seemingly uncontrolled. It travels to West Africa mainly from countries like Germany. This usually triggers outrage. Reportages depict conditions in the processing of e-waste that make distant places look like hell. There are even films that fill movie theatres.
This is problematic for two reasons.
On the one hand, landfills like Agbogbloshie are not hells, as reports make it seem. They are complex urban centres with a contradictory history. People with a lot of experience and unique knowledge work here, such as knowledge about the creative repair of old equipment. And when people work there with dangerous methods, they usually do so because they have no alternatives. It is their strategy to participate in the promises of modernity. Critical reports, perhaps once started with a good intention, quickly put these things into the background because of their sensational focus.
On the other hand, the focus on exports to the global South is misleading. As geographer Josh Lepawsky has shown with data analysis, exports from “developed” to “developing” countries are not important. Trade in old electronic equipment takes place primarily between countries of the global South. The African continent is a net exporter. European exports are therefore not irrelevant, but priorities are shifting. Last but not least, it is important to recognise that German/European e-waste is mainly transported within Europe. This is also the official resource strategy of the European Union.
Towards a new e-waste policy
High-tech at the end discusses a variety of approaches to address the issues, including a critical look at the current European recycling industry. It should be viewed critically because it discusses waste in a rather one-sided way, usually in a negative way, i.e. as a hazard. Repair in particular offers potential here, while it is not held in very high esteem, especially when compared with the significant funding initiatives that shredder and smelting companies receive.
In the fourth part of the book, political questions are played through, and the focus is on political consequences and new democratic impulses. It is a plea for a new examination of very selected questions:
- How can the recycling industry really put industrial responsibility at the centre? There is a great deal of creativity and political urge in dealing with household waste. How can the reach be increased to tackle waste prevention aggressively?
- How can knowledge about the quantities and distribution of different types of electronic waste be improved? (Because estimates such as the ratio of household and industrial waste are currently only rough estimates, which emphasizes the problem).
- How can the reparability of electronic equipment be promoted? For example, how far does the announced EU law on the “right to repair” go? How can the causes of obsolescence be better researched, beyond stereotypes?
- How can local initiatives be fostered to empower users?
- How can global solidarity be built, and how can initiatives learn from each other?
- How can a project like the Fairphone become more than a “proof of concept”? How does the political responsibility of the big producers come into focus?
- What kind of waste should be produced? Which dirty materials are acceptable, how many, where? How can such questions be approached democratically? Do proactive regulations of other industries offer good examples?
The questions are examples of reorientation. Here I draw a lot on the discard study community, especially Josh Lepawsky how pushes towards a reorientation (“reassembly”) in his “Reassembling Rubbish: Worlding Electronic Waste” book. (Online see: worldingelectronicwaste.xyz).
Politically, the problem can be broken down into one sentence: Contemporary environmental policy is characterized by a reaction to emissions. Garbage is produced in order to then handle it. How could the perspective be reversed? This does not mean asking how rubbish can simply be erased, because life without rubbish and damage is not possible. “Zero-Waste” sounds tempting, but it’s a little misleading in that sense.
Mobilizing actors and ideas
Suggestions for specific tools could be discussed here, but it is the assembly in and with movements that closes the book. Political tools must be socially and technically embedded, i.e. they must also be locally situated. This is why High-tech at the end argues for advocacy for political movements and associations. It is a plea for democratization.
Important work that can be supported is being done by the German foundation “anstiftung & ertomis”; the vzbv and others mobilizing for a comprehensive right to repair; the NGO association “coolproducts” demands a radical rethink in order to think about product efficiency in the long term; the Degroth movement is merging with the post-colonial and post-development movements in order to consistently think ecological transformation together with social transformation; the Tech Workers Coalition advocates an inclusive IT industry; the Chinese Working Women Network does this with a special focus on the exploitation of migrant women at Foxconn and similar production companies; and in this sense, emancipatory initiatives such as the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers need to be recognized and supported, which make the complex situations and the contribution of waste workers from the global South visible.
These and many other actors mobilize for new political approaches, for new ideas, and last but not least for the prevention of toxic electronic waste.