From Beginnings and Endings to Boundaries and Edges: Following e-waste

One of the joys of being a discard scholar is that our objects of study can be so insistent they challenge disciplinary methodologies. In an earlier post, I wrote that because trash is “inherently contested, multiple and fragmented… discard scholars need methodologies that don’t tidy up the mess and make trash one kind of stable, universal thing, described and solved forever.”

Josh Lepawsky and Charles Mather take this methodological challenge up in geography. They followed e-waste, and though, “We thought we’d end up in dump sites… we actually ended up in production sites.” The literature had prepared them for a dump, but in the end, they wound up at a wedding.

Lepawsky and Mather use e-waste to illuminate a theory of boundaries and edges rather than staying with the more traditional concept of beginnings and endings. They found that boundaries and edges were more appropriate to describe the material relational effects of people, things, researchers, places pertaining to e-waste. This way, instead of starting at a recycling bin in Canada and ending at a recycling depot in India, they followed their objects past and through processes that turned e-waste into something else. “Now e-waste, now jewellery, now love, now a wedding.” Lepawsky and Mather’s work looks different than what traditional commodity chain research because their beginnings and endings are not known ahead of time.

Scholars rarely explicitly consider the temporal aspects of research (beyond “finding time” to do it). When I took my methodology courses, no one brought up how to know when to stop a train of thought or cease following an object of study. Because modern waste, and particularly the heavy metals and plastics in e-waste, last thousands of years and travel thousands of miles, the temporal and geographical questions of research must become central to our studies.

The video above is based on the following article: Lepawsky J and Mather C. 2011 From beginnings and endings to boundaries and edges: rethinking circulation and exchange through electronic waste Area 43 242–249.

Lepawsky has a new article forthcoming in Geoforum on “Legal geographies of e-waste legislation in Canada and the US: Jurisdiction, responsibility and the taboo of production.”

Electronic waste (e-waste) is thought to be the fastest growing segment of the overall solid waste stream in many countries. Between 2003 and 2010 more than half of all Canadian provinces and US states passed legislation specifically to govern the disposition of e-waste. The purpose of this research is to investigate the legal geographies of this legislation. The principle findings are that the work of jurisdiction around e-waste in Canada and the US places financial responsibility for waste management on consumers not producers. Thus, contra the explicit intent of e-waste legislation, a regime of extended consumer, rather than producer, responsibility is emerging and waste generated as a result of design and manufacturing decisions remains taboo. But the implications of the legislative governance of e-waste go beyond questions of regulatory success or failure. At stake in the legislative governance of e-waste is the assembling of the social in a legal way that generates distributions of action that are democratized only so long as they limit public decision making to waste already produced and marketized only so long as they extend the ability of manufacturers, e-waste recyclers, and paramarket organizations to appropriate value. The work of jurisdiction around e-waste suggests jurisdiction can be more multiple, distributed, and patchy than prevailing theory allows.

Josh Lepawsky is  Associate Professor and Charles Mather is Head of Department both at the Department of Geography, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada.

3 thoughts on “From Beginnings and Endings to Boundaries and Edges: Following e-waste

  1. Like the emphasis on Geography and the temporal nature of E-Waste.
    Thank you for the article and this blog is absolutely fantastic!!
    I study Environmental Policy and Health and actually wrote an article
    called “E-Waste: A Wave of Trouble” which focuses on the Ocean and
    its growing roll in the disposal of this and all waste.

    Check it out at

    Look forward to following up on your articles!!

  2. Pingback: Opportunities for Graduate Study: rubbish electronics and recycling @ Memorial University « Discard Studies

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