A new open access article by Josh Lepawsky in The Geographical Journal, “The changing geography of global trade in electronic discards: time to rethink the e-waste problem,” argues against the popular notion that e-waste travels predominantly from ‘developed’ countries to ‘undeveloped’ countries. By looking at 9400 reported trade transactions from 1996 to 2012 between 206 territories, he finds that:

[Developed] territories are predominantly trading intra-regionally, with 73–82% of total trade moving between [developed] territories. In contrast, [developing] territories are mostly trading inter-regionally: by 2012 less than one-quarter of [developing] trade moved to other [developing] territories with the rest moving to [developed] territories.

Inter-regional trade, 1996–2012. Annex countries are developed countries, and non-Annex are developing countries. From Lepawsky, Josh. (2014).

Inter-regional trade, 1996–2012. Annex countries are developed countries, and non-Annex are developing countries. From Lepawsky, Josh. (2014).

E-waste flows, 1996. Image from Lepawsky 2014.

E-waste flows, 1996. Image from Lepawsky 2014. Click for larger view.

As these images illustrate, while 1996 was characterized by developing countries dumping in less developed nations (though Lepawsky warns that even this geography is more mixed that the bar graph implies), over time the circulation of electronic waste has steadily moved away from that geography until developing countries are exporting to developed nations– a move that is less amenable to the verb “dumping.”

E-waste flows, 2012. Image from Lepawsky 2014.

E-waste flows, 2012. Image from Lepawsky 2014. Click for larger view.

What does this mean for discard studies more broadly? First, I would argue that it is part of a trend in evidence-based social arguments about the material and spatial configurations of waste that defy popular concepts. Whether we’re talking about recycling, e-waste, disgust, labour, or environmental solutions, dominant cultural narratives about waste often misalign with material creation, circulation, and containment. This has ramifications for the second point: since so many social and environmental problems involve waste, mischaracterizing the problem leads to ineffective problem solving. As Lepawsky notes, “Export prohibitions, as they are articulated under the Basel Convention, imagine a world of trade that is increasingly irrelevant with respect to flows of e-waste.” Moreover, the dominant narrative misses why this waste circulates the way it does:

“dominant framing…  blinds analysis to some of the key reasons such trade occurs. These reasons include the demand for recycled resources for new rounds of manufacturing as well as demand for used but repairable, refurbishable and reusable electronics affordable to the majority of the world’s population who cannot afford the newly manufactured electronic products available to Annex VII populations and – crucially – to the growing urban middle-class populations of non-Annex VII territories (Minter 2013). The dominant storyline about e-waste misses the dynamic action of reuse, refurbishment, repair and recycling that accompanies this trade.”

Thus, Lepawsky points to how dominant discourses of e-waste accomplish what Michelle Murphy calls “regimes of imperceptibility,” the capacity for some research methods and premises to systematically render some things invisible in the act of making other things manifest. Countries in the global north definitely dump e-waste in the global south– that is not under debate. What is under debate is what an exclusive focus on that particular aspect of spatial politics does to potential alternative circulations, politics, and actions.

For more information and to use interactive versions of the data, see Visualizing Transboundary Shipments of E-waste on Reassembling Rubbish.


Lepawsky, Josh. 2014. The Changing Geography of Global Trade in Electronic Discards: time to rethink the e-waste problem. The Geographical Journal. DOI: 10.1111/geoj.12077 (Open Access: available here)

Also by this author:

Lepawsky, Josh. 2012. Legal geographies of e-waste legislation in Canada and the US: Jurisdiction, responsibility and the taboo of production. Geoforum. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.geoforum.2012.03.006 (Open Access: available here)

Lepawsky, Josh and Billah, M. 2011. Making Chains that (Un)make Things: waste-value relations and the Bangladeshi rubbish electronics industry. Geografiska Annaler: Series B, Human Geography. 93 (2), p. 121-139 (Open Access: available here)

Lepawsky, Josh and Mather, C. 2011. From Beginnings and Endings to Boundaries and Edges: rethinking circulation and exchange through electronic waste. Area. 43 (3), p. 242-249 (Open Access: video abstract and paper available here)

Lepawsky, Josh and C. McNabb. 2010. Mapping the international trade and traffic of electronic waste. The Canadian Geographer. 54 (2), 177-195 (Open Access: available here)