Hightech at the end examines the global recycling of electronic waste by studying multiple sites: ethnographic observations help unravel political negotiations on sustainability in India, the in-house value chain of a German recycling company is scrutinzed, and a failed Google innovation is discussed.

On this page, the book’s main arguments are presented.

Electronic waste allows a unique look at the two mega issues of globalisation and digitalisation. The book does this in four parts.

The book engages and challenges the readers. New data, surprising connections, easily overlooked actors or innovative social science approaches make a difference, they should leave traces.

Overview

The Intro: Moving away from individual consumption

Electronic waste is a unique and fascinating waste stream. It keeps popping up on the news. The mountain of waste is growing – more than 50 million tons per year, as the United Nations University estimates in its renowned “E-Waste” reports. And at the same time, consumers learn from the many reports about the strange routes that the ‘their’ e-waste takes after disposal. These are usually stories in which things like old computers travel to the global south, to West Africa or Asia.

What is being conveyed is a general uncertainty. Too little is happening. Garbage is not only not avoided, it makes conditions and life even worse. Individual consumption makes life in the distance worse. But this argument is misleading. Critical researcher points out that such reports reproduce racism and increase inequalities.

High-tech at the end presents an alternative perspective. There is by no means little being done in dealing with electronic waste. The legal and industrial changes are just difficult to grasp. They take place on an infrastructural level that requires special attention. At the same time, the book’s core argument is that this is why the focus on individual responsibility – on households, for example – falls far short. It is industrial practices that are responsible for most waste and the most toxic waste; consumers cannot control this and do not even know about many industrial routines. “Infrastructures,” the book argues, “related production systems and their path dependencies are mainly responsible for material output, i.e. energy consumption, residues and waste. The ratios are difficult to estimate, but only between 3 and 9 percent of e-waste is household waste, and even this waste is highly mediated. The exact calculation of this is not of central importance here, this is a controversy in itself, as the academic blog “Discard Studies” shows in detail.

High-tech in the end develops the argument that an infrastructure of high-tech recycling has been established over the last three decades. You have to look at this infrastructure if you want to understand how waste is handled. By examining the everyday work on and with the high-tech infrastructure, taking into account its history, one gains a new view of social structures and dynamics.

Thinking value with waste

The book takes a sociological perspective, with a particular sensitivity to the way science and technology are anchored in society. The idea is that by taking a look at waste (here: electronic waste), one can learn new things about valuation practices and value orders. Waste is more than the flip side of value. This results in a wide range of general theoretical discussion which will not be dealt with in any further detail here (check here, for example).

What is important is that high-tech ultimately thinks globally in terms of e-waste. The assessment and processing of e-waste crosses borders, and special methods are needed to analyse this in a book. Qualitative, explorative methods are chosen that allow a deeper understanding of the phenomena. And three different locations are discussed and connected with each other.

An Indian law

The first empirical part of the book discusses a law in India: the “e-waste (Management and Handling) rules”. With this law, the government has reorganized the value chains of the electronics industry, including its waste. And the law was intensively negotiated for about a decade. This process is put at the centre of the analysis. Participating observations, interviews and a critical and creative reading of formal documents offer a glimpse into the dynamics of the negotiations and the consequences.

There is no way around Asia in the debate on climate and environmental policy. India has also been processing electronic waste for decades; this is where the pioneers are to be found, even if they are often devalued as belonging to the “informal sector”. In fact, it is precisely this “sector” that should be eliminated by the new law, so that “clean” methods can take over.

This first part of the book follows the transformation of value creation towards the new law and develops three arguments.

This NGO offers reports from India.

Firstly, the Indian economy can be reframed through the lens of waste. By following discarded electronics, one gets to know social hierarchies, creative actors, but also the sources of toxic waste streams.

Secondly, the Indian case makes it clear that a shift occured in the course of the 2000s. High-tech recyclers, who shred and melt old scrap to provide “fresh” resources for the production of new goods, became the new core actors in the handling of electronic scrap. The situation is similar in Europe. The book calls this the “hegemony of high-tech recycling”.

Thirdly, it is crucial that the bulk of the work of the “informal sector” is by no means dirty, but the public debate makes this appear to be so. The creative, but only partly dirty work of garbage collectors and handicraft workers has been systematically devalued. The “informal” economy accounts for about 90% of humanity in India. It cannot be suppressed, the new politics rather forces actors to use more radical methods, and unfortunately it makes violence more likely. (Here‘s an English academic artile published on this.)

E-waste on a recycling yard

The second empirical part of the book explores the work of a recycling and melting company. The basis for this is a two-month participating observation.

If high-tech recycling is a relatively new and at the same time a central place for handling electronic waste, it is necessary to discuss what actually happens here. The book is dedicated to the very practical knowledge that is necessary to process the materials.

A typical situation at a meeting place, which is reconstructed in detail in the book. It is also discussed in an article for Valuation Studies (in press).

Firstly, it is argued that recycling should not solely focus on the productivity of machines. Finely calibrated machines are in use, and, indeed, compliance with recycling quotas is also a key instrument in the world of recycling. But for companies this is no challenge.

Secondly, the book therefore argues that the precise measuring of materials should be recognised as a central practical challenge. The recycling company does not just process materials, it does so on the basis of specific assessments that are constantly being adjusted and arranged. Experience knowledge is required.

The knowledge of a recycler is local, but it is also globally integrated, through the financial economy. Excavator drivers and foremen (there are almost only men on the premises here) react to the rhythm of the financial sector, which a company such as the one examined here would like to steer with its own initiatives, at least partly.

Alternative designs

On the one hand, high-tech recycling means shredding and melting machines. But it also means a certain design. The third empirical part of the book discusses an innovation by Google, which wanted to anticipate electronic waste. The focus is on “Ara”, a “modular smartphone” that should be produced under better conditions than standard smartphones and, above all, should be more durable due to its design. This part of the book chooses a slightly different perspective, as it is mainly online interactions that are reconstructed and analyzed.

The imaginary. Via phonebloks.com

Firstly, the book here pleads for a closer look at smartphones; to understand why they are a central symbol in the handling of electronic waste. Here one gets a glimpse of the way Silicon Valley and its core players work and think, but one also quickly learns about large infrastructures such as telephone networks and server farms, without which the “mobile revolution” would have been unthinkable.

Secondly, the book follows Google’s innovation, which is closely linked to the initiative of a social movement called “Phonebloks”, which has been working for a “phone worth keeping”. The economy of the digital industries is shown here as a fundamentally moral economy. The “Project Ara” was developed over several years and was discussed and further developed, especially at online (streamed) developer conferences.

Thirdly, however, this part also gets to the bottom of the “end” of the project. Ara got sacked in 2015, and the question arises as to what can be learned from its failure. One gains an insight into the basic thinking of “Silicon Valley”, where failure is thought of as productive. The actors actually want to learn little from failure, they rather try to build strong and disruptive industries that have to be discarded quickly if they turn out to be unstable. Modular smartphones would have been only seemingly sustainable; they rather reveal the problems of current knowledge economies.

Conclusion

The fourth part of the book concludes with conceptual propositions and a general synthesis.

On the one hand, the contemporary processing and valuation of e-waste is discussed with regard to the recycling economy. This reveals the dominance of certain European-American values, in particular a very specific way of dealing with waste. Against this background, the circular economy is criticised: it handles electronic waste too cautiously, a reduction of waste has not occurred at present, and it will not occur under the given circumstances.

On the other hand, regardless of the political component, it is shown that dealing with a globally distributed infrastructure is beneficial from a social science perspective – the analysis of bureaucratic orders and their inherent logic, the zooming in on everyday industrial activities, and the breaking up of innovation dynamics allow a fresh look at the way knowledge is produced and how knowledge is contested. Above all, it shows how the production of value is disputed – and that there is more to e-waste than economic value. The book thus makes a plea for a more comprehensive approach to economic activity. Thinking with and through waste then allows us to explore the issues of globalization and digitization more openly.