The changing geography of global trade in electronic discards: time to rethink the e-waste problem


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This paper provides a synopsis of the changing geography of global trade in electronic waste over time using data available from the United Nations COMTRADE database. It quantifies the magnitude and direction of this trade between 206 territories in over 9400 reported trade transactions between 1996 and 2012. The results demonstrate two key findings. First, at its peak in 1996, trade from territories designated as Annex VII under the Basel Convention (‘developed’ countries) to non-Annex VII territories (‘developing’ countries) accounted for just over 35% of total trade. By 2012 trade from Annex VII to non-Annex VII territories accounted for less than 1% of total trade. Second, between 1996 and 2012 the two groups of territories evolved different regional trade orientations: Annex VII territories are predominantly trading intra-regionally, with 73–82% of total trade moving between Annex VII territories. In contrast, non-Annex VII territories are mostly trading inter-regionally: by 2012 less than one-quarter of non-Annex VII trade moved to other non-Annex VII territories with the rest moving to Annex VII territories. The results are congruent with an emerging body of research that profoundly troubles the dominant conceptual and policy framings of the global e-waste problem. Solving that problem will not happen if it is imagined as one predominantly characterised by dumping of e-waste from rich, ‘developed’ countries of the ‘global North’ in poor, ‘developing’ countries of the ‘global South’. A reframing of the issue of e-waste is necessary to productively enrich the conceptualisation and policy discussion of e-waste as an issue of environmental and economic politics and justice.