PSA: Beware of Easy Narratives

This is a Twitter essay by Josh Lepawsky (@rubbishmaker) about one of many recent examples of reporting on the e-waste trade. Many of the problems specific to the article considered here can be found in a wide variety of reportage about the international waste trade more generally: they take up and perpetuate easy narratives about blame and harm without attending to the nuances, or even facts, of the matter.

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This article encourages readers to think that “disposed electronic waste coming from Europe” as the sole source of pollutants in question. Yet, the report the @guardianeco article is based on shows both electronic and automobile scrap are key sources.

Also, @guardianeco implies that electronics are some kind of foreign magic. As if Africans haven’t had electronics, like TV, for more than 50 years. See e.g., Esan, Oluyinka. Nigerian Television: Fifty Years of Television in Africa. AMV Publishing Services, 2009.

This framing keeps the story firmly focused on downstream, post-consumer from Europe. In turn, that means the conversation brackets out the role of manufacturing. This is a problem because manufacturers, not consumers, have the most power to change the chemistry of products. Focusing exclusively on post-consumer means the conversation is confined to what to do with waste AFTER it already exists, which guarantees no change to how that-which-will-become-waste is manufactured in the first place (or at all). This suits manufacturers and brands just fine b/c it helps them keep telling us stories about their strides in recycling. Like this one: 

_collid=books_covers_0&isbn=9780262017367&type=While the reportage adds to the mis-specification of the problem, the underlying report from and contributes to that mis-specification in important ways too, perpetuating the idea that Africans are only ever victims of European waste dumping instead of active agents of their own digital futures (e.g. ‘s Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafés of Urban Ghana) and the report relies heavily on the figure of 352,474 tonnes of exported from Europe to make its case. That number comes from very questionable methodology and again diverts attention away from manufacturing.

Yet manufacturing of electronics released over 18.7 million tonnes of various pollutants in Europe in 2018 compared to about 3.8 million tonnes of household arising in Europe in the same year. For scale, that looks like this…


Does that mean those 352,474 exported tonnes should be ignored? Of course not. But eradicating those exports will do nothing to solve the problem of POPs in products because it would focus all action on dealing with POPs after they are already in the products consumers bought.

Further reading

Akese, Grace A., and Peter C. Little. “Electronic Waste and the Environmental Justice Challenge in Agbogbloshie.” Environmental Justice, March 22, 2018.
Burrell, Jenna. “What Environmentalists Get Wrong about E-Waste in West Africa.” The Berkeley Blog, September 1, 2016.
Lepawsky, Josh, and Grace Abena Akese. “Sweeping Away Agbogbloshie. Again.” Discard Studies (blog), June 23, 2015.
Minter, Adam. “How We Think about E-Waste Is in Need of Repair,” October 2016.
———. “The Burning Truth Behind an E-Waste Dump in Africa | Science | Smithsonian,” January 13, 2016.