Criminal Negligence? (Part 2)

By Yvan Schulz and Joshua Goldstein


Source: Yvan Schulz


In Part 1 of our response to the UNEP’s Waste Crime report we examined how several of the report’s fact claims regarding waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) were built and found that they were based on improbable figures, murky evidence and rough estimates that tended to be taken for precise calculations. Here, we take a step further to look at the kinds of narratives the report constructs out of these poorly considered fact claims. Not surprisingly, such wobbly fact claims contribute to producing several generalizations about how the trade in used and waste EEE works that are erroneous, ambiguous, and misleading.

Generalization 1: The illegal waste trade’s main driver is environmental dumping.


Source: Yvan Schulz


The Waste Crime report covers numerous types of waste, among them used and waste EEE, worn out tires, shipwrecks and toxic chemicals. The authors of the report often distinguish between these various types of waste but they also write about them in general terms. “Illegal waste shipments”, for instance, are assumed to follow one and the same logic, no matter what they are composed of:

The key driver for illegal waste shipments to destination countries is the profit generated from payments for safe disposal of waste that in reality is either dumped or unsafely recycled. It may, however, also include an additional profit from recycling certain components. While the latter appears to be positive, in practice it develops environments that are hazardous to health, and typically leads to subsequent dumping of majority [sic] of the waste. (p. 8)

As this excerpt makes clear, environmental dumping serves as the main explanation to why objects and substances declared “illegal waste” move around the world (see also p. 41). By contrast, the report downplays the scale of recycling and calls into question its potentially positive role.

However, our respective investigations in the field of electrical and electronic discards compel us to challenge this narrative. They reveal little evidence that transnational shipments of “e-waste” derive from attempts by exporters to elude strict environmental regulations and indicate rather that global flows are mainly driven by the quest for working or repairable secondhand devices, spare parts and recyclable materials (Schulz 2015). Other recent collaborative research between INTERPOL and United Nations University (CWIT, 2015) finds that with regards to Europe:

“1.3 million tons departed the EU in undocumented exports […] the main economic driver behind these shipments is reuse and repair and not the dumping of e-waste.” (p. 6)

“the main driver behind exports is the reuse value combined with the avoided costs of sorting, testing and packaging.”

If the main driver for used and waste EEE export was in fact “profit generated from payments for safe disposal of waste that in reality is either dumped or unsafely recycled“, there should be evidence of exporters paying importers to take used and waste EEE off their hands for bogus “safe disposal” abroad. Yet, the only case of conviction for “waste trading” mentioned in the Waste Crime report (see UK case: export of illegal e-waste, p. 42) involves the opposite situation: an African trader based in the UK used his own money to pay to ship discarded equipment from the UK and import it for repair and reuse in West Africa.

The report’s contention, despite a dearth of evidence, that dumping drives the discarded EEE trade reinforces common misconceptions. The presumption of dumping is widespread. Schulz found while doing research in China that many people assumed that Chinese traders of electrical and electronic discards receive money from their foreign counterparts for accepting “e-waste” (dianzi laji 电子垃圾) and that shipments are subsequently dumped in China’s fields, forests and waterways. But Schulz’s research revealed that Chinese traders pay to get access to something they consider as a commodity (huo ) and offer prices that are often considerably higher than the commodity price of their composing materials (copper, aluminum, plastics, etc.), in large part because the recyclers they sell this stuff to are capable of salvaging a considerable proportion of devices and components in addition to the commodity materials.

This “waste stream” has specific characteristics that differentiate it from others. First, secondhand and even dysfunctional EEE has a high residual value. Devices and components declared obsolete or unworthy of repair and discarded in rich regions of the world often enjoy continued “life” in poorer ones (see Jackson et. al, 2014, 2012 and Lepawsky and Billah, 2011.) Second, EEE is composed in large part of recyclable materials (plastics, iron and steel, copper, aluminum, etc.) that business people the world over are interested in recovering. Third, EEE’s toxicity materializes above all during processing, when varoius forms of dismantling and resource extraction are used (this is of course most notoriously evident with open burning, but even mechanized shredding in certified facilities can have problematic occupational health consequences for workers in these plants, see Ceballos et al, 2014) In other words, up to this point of processing, EEE can be transported, handled and stocked relatively safely—in contrast to radioactive or medical waste, for instance. Fourth, some of WEEE’s most hazardous components have a high economic value. Printed circuit boards (PCBs) from computers, for instance, contain not only toxic substances such as brominated flame retardants and lead, but also valuable metals like gold and copper. Such a commodity is therefore in high demand and the object of fierce competition among companies.

Instead of taking into consideration the specific characteristics of each “waste stream”, the Waste Crime report lumps together a multitude of substances and objects into a single category (“illegal waste”) and uses the same logic to explain their movements across borders. This overgeneralization comes at a high cost, for it misleads readers into believing that the tragic saga of the Probo Koala (a tanker carrying toxic slops that was eventually dumped in Côte d’Ivoire) and the everyday redistribution of consumer goods through global markets for secondhand electronics, for instance, are one and the same thing.

Generalization 2. Ambiguities of Reuse


Source: Yvan Schulz

The authors of the
Waste Crime report adopt an ambiguous stance toward the issue of reuse. At various places in the text (e.g. on p. 48), they acknowledge that reuse takes place and should be factored in the analysis. But in other places, they sound widely skeptical about discarded EEE’s potential for reuse. On p. 24, for instance, they write:

Identifying and classifying electronic and electrical equipment as waste may be challenging. One could argue that used or discarded equipment could still be of value to others and therefore should not be considered waste. However, the life span [sic] of second-hand goods is very short, and within a couple of years it becomes discarded waste.

This claim regarding the brevity of useful life is made by assertion rather than evidence. Moreover, it is not clear why used goods should be singled out as peculiar in having short useful lives when new products do as well (see here for example). Strangely, the report itself contains contradicting information: “The lifespan of appliances, such as refrigerators and air conditioners, can be long” (p. 50).

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Source: Yvan Schulz


More generally, the authors of the report regard discarded EEE and e-waste as interchangeable concepts, which leads them to pay little attention to what happens beyond the first owner/user’s period of use. Distinguishing used EEE from waste EEE is an arduous task. The authors of the Waste Crime report claim that using technical guidelines to draw “a clear line” between both categories of objects would solve the problem (p. 15). Yet, creating such a clear line is ultimately reliant on arbitrary criteria that can shift with fluctuations in market demand for materials (see Wynne, 1987). Schulz’s research in China indicates that components such as liquid crystal display (LCD) panels that may have been officially recorded as WEEE in Europe are incorporated into “new” television sets on an industrial scale in Southern China (Schulz, forthcoming). While in Europe, Yvan Schulz asked the boss of a recycling company whether he would be interested in shipping the functioning flat panel displays (FPDs) he collects in his home country to China—instead of destroying them—adding that they would be purchased directly by a Chinese company that manufactures “new” television sets using second-hand panels. The boss refused, arguing that “unfortunately”, he had “no way of getting these objects out of the country, because they count as waste according to the law”. The European Union (EU)’s “requirements” (listed on p. 15 of the Waste Crime report) are remarkably stringent and therefore appear as an effective means of separating the wheat (good, reusable EEE) from the chaff (bad, waste EEE). However, as Yvan Schulz’s investigation indicates, they are worlds apart from existing (customary) standards valid among traders and technicians and in often encourage the destruction (for recycling and disposal) rather than repair reuse of EEE, despite the findings of many researchers that reuse and refurbishment are greatly preferable to recycling on ecological grounds (see StEP 2009 for one prominent example).

In most cases, technical guidelines do not take into account what technicians in major refurbishment centers throughout the developing world are doing. For instance, two large buildings in Shenzhen (China) host hundreds of small shops specialized in recent models of high-value smartphones (iPhone 4 and up, Samsung Galaxy 3 and up). The vast majority of these devices originate from outside China. They are purchased in Hong Kong regardless of their condition (many have a broken screen, suffered water damage, can’t be switched on, etc.); brought into mainland China (legally and illegally); dismantled, refurbished and reassembled in Shenzhen (the infamous Guiyu is not involved in this particular commodity network); and then resold to buyers from all over the country and, to a lesser extent, the world (see this article in Chinese from China Economic Net). Every functioning or repairable component becomes part of these refurbished and reassembled phones (see also Neuwirth, 2011 p. 86-113). “Waste EEE” and “illegal trade” are too monolithic to serve as sufficient categories for analyzing the trade in discarded electronics.

Generalization 3: Putting an end to waste crime can solve the global problem that waste constitutes.

The UNEP’s Waste Crime,suggests that the “crimes” identified in the Report are the main problem with global waste and that fighting them constitutes an effective way of meeting this “challenge”. Yet in taking this approach the report bolsters the fallacy of waste as an end-of-pipe problem.


Source: Yvan Schulz


To be effective, a solution to the “e-waste” problem must reduce waste at its source and not just deal with epiphenomena. But this would imply questioning the way the whole electronics industry “manufactures obsolescence”, for instance, something that has not been done thus far by any legal instrument (Sterne 2007, p. 28 and Lepawsky 2012).

By sticking to an end-of-pipe perspective and a legalist approach, the UNEP report continues the general problem of reducing or eliminating attention to where the vast majority of waste is actually generated—that is, in manufacturing. No solution to the e-waste problem will be complete without a major reorientation toward reducing waste upstream before consumers get products into their hands.


Though it contains much useful information about the global waste trade, including used and waste EEE, the UNEP’s Waste Crime report can be misleading in many ways, as we have argued above. The recent publication of the CWIT report invites a comparison. Assumptions and generalizations repeatedly presented as commonly known realities in the Waste Crime report—in particular claims about massive exports of WEEE from rich to poor countries—were suddenly proven wrong in the CWIT report. In sum, we believe the many misleading claims and misguided assumptions demonstrate that the framework used to assess the trade in used and waste EEE is in need of a thorough revision and rethink. The Waste Crime report failed in this respect, but it is never too late to act. We hope that in the future the UNEP will look more deeply into the actual mechanisms of trade in used and waste EEE. As an organization that contributes to policy-making, it is responsible for not relaying dominant discourses when these are inaccurate.


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