Trash and treasure: an ethnography of "e-waste" in China
“E-waste”, as discarded electronic and electrical devices (DeDs) are collectively referred to, has been attracting great attention worldwide in recent years. Framed as an environmental problem, it is routinely linked to issues of pollution and global injustice. One town in China, for instance, came under the spotlight in the early 2000s and eventually became a poster child of so-called “informal” e-waste trading and processing. “Primitive” dismantling, sorting, extracting and melting operations in this area (as well as in other, less infamous ones) are regularly accused of causing environmental contamination, with harmful repercussions on human health and the ecosystem.
In the last decade, institutional experts in China progressively set up a regulatory system for “e-waste management” that they portray as an environmentally friendly alternative and thus, as a solution to the problem mentioned above. They foreground “environmental protection”, present it as a justifying principle and claim that the challenge of continuously growing quantities of DeDs can be addressed by “scaling up” the industry and “upgrading” technologies.
Practices such as resale, repair, refurbishing, repurposing and stockpiling abound, though they are largely unaccounted for, since institutional experts focus almost exclusively on materials recovery.
My research maps and compares the various ways in which individuals and organizations in China extract value from DeDs to make a living. It describes and critically assesses the drive towards “formalization”, and provides explanations to the high resilience of “informal” practices and actors. By looking at the changes in the ways DeDs are dealt with, one gets a glimpse of the evolution of China’s social structures and economic fabric.
I argue, for instance, that an important aspect of China’s “path to development” implies acquiring and mastering the same “state-of-the-art” technologies (recycling machines, bureaucratic models and economic structures) that First World nations now possess and disregarding those already available in the country, regardless of their environmental performance.
Data production took place between 2014 and 2016 while I was conducting multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork, mostly in Guangdong Province, among repairmen, traders, state officials, scientists, rubbish collectors, journalists and workers. A particular attention was paid to the material characteristics of DeDs as well as to the technologies deployed to transform them.
Recent publications and presentations
SCHULZ Yvan. (Forthcoming). "'Fin de vie' et renaissance clandestine en Chine du Sud. Quand des 'déchets' redeviennent des écrans plats". Techniques et culture, [pagination unknown].
SCHULZ Yvan & STEUER Benjamin. (Forthcoming). "Dealing with Discarded e-Devices" in Eva Sternfeld (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Environmental Policy in China, [pagination unknown]. London: Routledge.
SCHULZ Yvan. (Forthcoming). "The great value of poor migrants: State policies, Christian morality and primary education in Sabah (Malaysia)", Journal of Asia Pacific Anthropology, [pagination unknown].
SCHULZ Yvan. 2015. "Vers un nouveau régime en matière de déchets ? Réflexions critiques sur l'évolution du marché chinois des appareils high-tech d'occasion", Perspectives Chinoises 2015/3, 47-56.
SCHULZ Yvan. 2015. "Towards a New Waste Regime? Critical Reflections on China's Shifting Market for High-Tech Discards", China Perspectives 2015/3, 43-50.
SCHULZ Yvan. 2012. "Time representations in social science", Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 14(4), p. 381-387.
Some day in July 1994 // Key experience. On the way from the airport to a guesthouse in New Delhi, a fourteen year-old boy watches peasants working their fields in the early-morning mist and suddenly realizes the vastness of this world… and that he actually knows nothing about it.
2005 // Ethnographer in all but name. After numerous travels in neighbouring countries, Yvan decides to visit a friend in China and ends up staying there seven months, learning the language, writing hundreds of pages of notes and taking thousands of pictures.
February 2008 // Turning point. Over the years, social science books had slowly encroached on Yvan's desk while he was busy working in more or less unrelated fields. He eventually heard the cry of his inner dispositions and went back to university at the age of 28 to study anthropology.
2011 // The test. During his one-year fieldwork in Malaysia, Yvan experienced delight and frustration, brillant insights and total misunderstandings, luck and bad luck, hope and despair… in other words the daily routine of anthropologists… and he liked it!