03/03: E-Waste

E-waste has a lot of possible definitions, but it refers to used electronics shipped between countries. From the StEP-Initiative, it refers to “the reverse supply chain which collects products no loner desired by a given consumer and refurbishes for other consumers, recycles, or otherwise processes waste.” The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development defines e-waste as “any appliance using an electrical power supply that has reached its end-of-life.” Two geographers (Josh Lepawsky and Chris Mcnabb) at Memorial University of Newfoundland sifted through data from UN Comtrade (a very confusing database on international commodities trading) and made a graphic illustrating how e-waste flows between continents. Their paper can be found here. The common narrative described by 60 Minutes and Time Magazine highlights both the large quantities of equipment and appliances traveling from the developed world to the developing world and the environment/personal health risks associated with the unregulated recycling practices common in the developing world. I have not found any research that disputes these two facts, but much of the literature has stressed a more nuanced look at how this transfer of resources, in the form of ‘e-waste’, represents a strong economic driver for the countries on the receiving end. The shipments of working and broken machines form the basis for a recycling industry that also generates most of the consumer electronics (much of it refurbished) for the domestic populations. One of the graphics from the Lepawsky-Mcnabb article represents volumes and flows of e-waste in tonnage, distinguishing between imports, exports, domestic trade and international trade (labeled as figure 2 below). My revision, shown after, shows geographic relationships as plotted onto a Dymaxion projection map and adds a relative scale to the arrow thicknesses. Concentric rings represent domestic trade (light grey) and international trade (dark grey). The fact that the statistics cover both South and North America are shown with dotted lines. The main waste transfer is clearly rendered with a thick grey line pointing from the Americas to Asia.

cag_279_LRglobal supply chain

For now, though, I prefer the more abstract original.


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