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Keywords:

  • electronic waste;
  • mapping;
  • trade and environment policy;
  • Basel Convention

Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. The E-waste problem
  6. E-waste and the Basel Convention
  7. A global synopsis of transboundary E-waste trade, 1996–2012
  8. Discussion
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

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.


Introduction

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. The E-waste problem
  6. E-waste and the Basel Convention
  7. A global synopsis of transboundary E-waste trade, 1996–2012
  8. Discussion
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

For more than a decade the problem of electronic waste (‘e-waste’) has been framed in terms of exports from wealthy countries – particularly the USA, Canada and those in Europe – reaching poor countries to be processed in conditions hazardous to workers and the environment. Reports by the Basel Action Network (BAN 2002), Toxics Link India (2003) and Greenpeace International (2005) sounded early alarms about e-waste being processed under such conditions in now infamous sites in Asia and Africa. The bulk of reports, news media and peer-reviewed literature on e-waste has largely left this basic premise unquestioned. Yet, emerging evidence suggests we need to think differently about the past, present and likely future patterns of international trade and traffic of e-waste. Evidence from a variety of sources collected using a diversity of methods suggests a new – though still minority – position: the bulk of e-waste imports are not waste but are instead working or repairable equipment; domestic sources rather than only foreign dumping contribute significant volumes of electronic discards in ‘developing’ countries; and trade from rich ‘developed’ nations to poor ‘developing’ nations represents a modest portion of e-waste flows relative to flows within these regions.

This paper develops and expands the work of Lepawsky and McNabb (2010) by mapping the geography of global trade in electronic discards over time. It quantifies the magnitude and direction of trade between 206 territories in over 9400 reported trade transactions from 1996 to 2012 using data available from the United Nations COMTRADE database. It also examines the organisation of trade within and between two key regions designated under Annex VII of the Basel Convention, the key piece of international regulation governing the international trade in electronic discards. Two main findings emerge from this analysis. First, at its peak in 1996, trade from territories designated under the Basel Convention as Annex VII [composed of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the European Community (EC) and Lichtenstein] to non-Annex VII territories (all other signatories) 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. Consequently, the results suggest that the dominant conceptual and policy framing of the e-waste problem – one characterised by e-waste predominantly flowing from the ‘global North’ to the ‘global South’ – needs to be substantially reconsidered.

The paper is divided into five parts. First, a discussion of the methods used in this paper is presented. Particular attention is paid to the nature and limitations of the data, the analytical approach and how the data were used to construct the visualisations of global trade in electronic discards in two reference years, 1996 and 2012, the earliest and latest dates for which trade data are available at the time of writing. Second, an outline of how the e-waste problem has been framed in the literature is presented and results from recent studies that suggest a need to rethink that framing are discussed. Third, the relevance of the Basel Convention for discussions of e-waste is considered. Here attention is given to portions of the Convention that define hazardous waste and define a geography of vulnerability that the Convention seeks to ameliorate. Fourth, a synopsis of the global trade in electronic discards from 1996 to 2012 is offered. In this section cartograms of the trade are used to discuss both overall patterns and specific examples in them that bolster claims about the need to rethink the framing of the e-waste problem. This section demonstrates that the vast majority of electronic discards are traded either within what the Basel Convention designates as the Annex VII region or from the non-Annex VII region to the Annex VII region. Finally, the paper concludes with a brief discussion of the conceptual and policy implications of the results obtained in this paper.

Methods

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. The E-waste problem
  6. E-waste and the Basel Convention
  7. A global synopsis of transboundary E-waste trade, 1996–2012
  8. Discussion
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

Measuring and tracing the international trade and traffic of e-waste is extremely challenging for a variety of reasons. These reasons include the lack of a universal definition of e-waste, the absence of international trade data that distinguishes between new and used electronic commodities, and the role of illicit trade (Bisschop 2012; more generally, see Nordstrom 2007). In this paper, publicly available trade data are used to provide a synoptic picture of international transboundary e-waste flows from 1996 to 2012. Data were obtained from the United Nations COMTRADE database for 206 territories and over 9400 reported trade transactions between those territories. COMTRADE data were selected because of their accessibility as well as their territorial and historical coverage. Other approaches to international e-waste trade data such as the use of data available from national customs (Grant and Oteng-Ababio 2012) or statistical (Duan et al. 2013; United States International Trade Commission 2013) agencies are possible. However, there are drawbacks to such approaches: they are confined to data collected for a single territory and/or rely on estimation techniques required to overcome definitional differences in data categories between a given territory and its trade partners; customs data are often not publicly available and access must be negotiated between researchers and the relevant authorities – a daunting task even when a single territory is of interest let alone if data for world trade are desired.

The specific COMTRADE category used here is Harmonised System (HS) 2002 code 854810 (waste and scrap of primary batteries and electrical accumulators) for years 1996–2012, the earliest and latest data available at the time of writing. This code is used because it is the only one available in the COMTRADE dataset related to electronic discards (for further discussion, see Lepawsky and McNabb 2010). As Kahhat and Williams (2012; see also Miller et al. 2012) point out, the use of this data category raises two concerns. First, given that it covers waste and scrap of primary batteries and electrical accumulators it is unclear if it maps ‘patterns similar to end-of-life electronics’ in part because the data would include lead-acid batteries from vehicles and, second, the trade in such scrap is ‘presumably, driven by materials recycling and not reuse’ (Kahhat and Williams 2012, 68). Kahhat and Williams are correct, but such concerns do not necessarily refute the validity of using the data analysed here as an indicator or proxy measure for the international trade in e-waste for several reasons. First, there is an inherent difficulty in mapping anything called ‘e-waste’ using formal trade statistics that arises because of the pervasive use of electronics in products which are not categorised as ‘electronics’, such as automobiles. Indeed, the specific example of automobiles highlights the arbitrariness with which one would or would not consider something ‘electronic’ – lead-acid batteries (and other types as well) are used to power devices such as digital cameras and computer peripherals such as wireless mice and keyboards which might be more readily understood as ‘electronic’ but are not always defined as such in trade data or under legislation explicitly devoted to managing end-of-life electronics (Lepawsky 2012); other types of batteries are used in the real-time clocks that allow a variety of electronic devices such as personal computers to keep track of time when their primary power source is turned off. This categorisation problem exists for any study of e-waste. Second, and perhaps more convincingly, Kahhat and Williams' (2009 2012) results, as well as those of other studies discussed in more detail in the next section, are consonant with the results of a previous study that used HS 2002 854810 to map international e-waste flows (Lepawsky and McNabb 2010) and with the results reported here. In other words, the congruence of results from these various studies seem to strengthen the case for the utility of HS 2002 854810 as an indicator or proxy measure of international e-waste flows. Also, while the data analysed here cannot directly measure the crucially important aspects of trade related to reuse, repair and refurbishment, it is also true that no existing HS tariff code can do so because no such trade code exists. This is a very important limit to using such trade data to map the international trade in e-waste and demonstrates the importance of fieldwork to ground-truth patterns apparent in such trade data. What the COMTRADE data can tell us is where e-waste is traded from and where it goes. The data cannot tell us the purposes for which such trade occurs or the ends to which the commodity so traded is put (e.g. final disposal, reuse, recycling or recovery).

The data analysed below are for import transactions reported by territories. Reported imports are used based on the assumption that a territory is more likely to accurately report imports than exports, that is, to be more ‘careful’ about what is traded into its borders than what leaves them (it seems unlikely, for example, that an exporter would report an illicit trade). In the case of one territory, China, exports reported by all other territories to it for years 2003–2012 are included. This is because imports reported by China in these years suddenly drop to zero, which may reflect deliberate misreporting related to changes in China's policies on e-waste imports (see Lin et al. 2002; Tong 2004). Including reported exports to China for these years improves the synoptic picture for the territory, but does not significantly modify the overall patterns observed.

As Lepawsky and McNabb (2010) point out, these data need to be interpreted cautiously. There is a lack of trade data categories that would capture the variety of objects that could constitute e-waste (e.g. monitors, televisions, CPUs). COMTRADE data also do not distinguish between new and used commodities and miss unreported or illicit trade. However, to the extent that the data capture Annex VII to non-Annex VII trade, it may be more accurate to say that the data can capture some illegal or potentially illegal trade. In other words, the data may be more useful in this respect than Lepawsky and McNabb (2010) originally suggested. One consequence of this dearth of data is that the results reported here will underestimate total volumes of e-waste flows. However, while total volumes are underestimated, the data do provide insight into the magnitude, direction and organisation of trade that accord with the results of other studies discussed in the next section that use different methods and data sources. Thus, 854810 can be reasonably understood as an indicator or proxy for the more general, but difficult to define category of ‘e-waste’.

The data were processed using basic spreadsheet functions to produce the figures included here. Additionally, Gephi (Gephi Consortium 2013), a free and open source network analysis software, was used to generate cartograms depicting transboundary flows of e-waste. To do this using Gephi the COMTRADE dataset was imported as what the software designates as ‘nodes’ and ‘edges’. In most cases, nodes in the dataset represent states. In some instances they represent other kinds of territory categories used in the COMTRADE data reporting scheme (e.g. ‘United States Minor Outlying Islands’; ‘Other Asia nes [not elsewhere specified]’). An ‘edge’ is a technical term in network analysis that refers to a relationship that connects nodes. In this case, edges are reported e-waste trade transactions between territories (‘nodes’). To produce the cartograms using Gephi, geographic coordinate data (latitude and longitude) were added to each node to enable visualisation of a georeferenced trade network. Gephi includes a network layout plugin (called ‘Geo Layout’), which enables georeferenced node data to be displayed in a selection of map projections. The analysis presented here uses Gephi's Mercator projection layout. The COMTRADE dataset results in a directed graph, i.e. ‘X’ moves from Node ‘A’ to Node ‘B’. In this case, ‘X’ is the weight in kilograms of HS 2002 tariff code 854810 that moves from Node ‘A’ to Node ‘B’.

Visualisations of the COMTRADE dataset were made using the following parameters in Gephi: ranking nodes in terms of their out degree (the number of edges that leave a node) with ranking size set to a minimum of 10 and maximum of 100. This ranking results in different sizes of each node depending on how many edges leave a particular node. In plain language terms, this means that the size of a given node (e.g. Node ‘A’) is proportional to the number of trade transactions reported by all other nodes (e.g. Nodes ‘B’, ‘C’, ‘D’ …) that report receiving imports from Node ‘A’. The range of the ranking size of nodes (minimum 10, maximum 100) is chosen to ensure legibility of the resulting cartogram. Nodes are colour coded to reflect their status as Annex VII (blue-shaded nodes) or non-Annex VII (red-shaded nodes) territories under the Basel Convention (discussed in more detail below; colour versions available online). The thickness of the edges (i.e. trade transactions between territories) is proportional to the weight in kilograms of a given transaction relative to all other transactions in the graph. In short, the thicker an edge, the greater the weight of e-waste traded from one territory to another. The direction of the transaction is determined by following the curved edges in a clockwise direction from one node to another. Edges are also colour coded to reflect the Annex VII or non-Annex VII status of their source (i.e. a blue-shaded edge originates in an Annex VII territory, a red-shaded edge originates in a non-Annex VII territory).

The E-waste problem

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. The E-waste problem
  6. E-waste and the Basel Convention
  7. A global synopsis of transboundary E-waste trade, 1996–2012
  8. Discussion
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

Over the last decade research on e-waste has exploded. Trade press and environmental NGOs (ENGOs) were among the earliest to draw attention to e-waste as an emerging problem. Arensman (2000), writing for Electronic Business, alerted original equipment manufacturers to the recycling of e-waste as an emerging issue for industry. His article, along with BAN's Exporting Harm (BAN 2002) would later be cited in a UN pamphlet (Schwarzner et al. 2005). The UN pamphlet and the BAN report subsequently became common citations in the grey and scholarly e-waste literature as sources for key figures that circulate in support of the dominant activist, academic, and news media representations of e-waste: e-waste is the fastest growing segment of the overall waste stream at 3–5% per annum; global production of e-waste is estimated to be between 20 and 50 million tonnes, and between 50 and 80% of e-waste is exported from the USA rather than being recycled domestically. It is the UN pamphlet and the BAN report that are usually cited as sources for these figures, but it was Arensman's (2000) article that put forward the idea that electronics represent the fastest growing segment of the overall waste stream. His article drew on US Environmental Protection Agency (2001) estimates that were themselves derived from unspecified European studies. Although BAN's report has become well known for its allegation that 50–80% of e-waste is exported rather than recycled domestically in the USA, the group has recently tried to retract that claim (see Minter 2013a and the online commentary associated with the article).

A number of studies have attempted to trace the flows of e-waste internationally. In doing so, however, these studies have opened alternative – though still minority – interpretations of the e-waste problem that together warrant a rethinking of that problem's past, present and likely future. Collectively their evidence suggests that such trade and traffic are organised regionally in ways that do not easily square with the dominant e-waste storyline (Hajer 1995). They suggest that the bulk of e-waste imports are working or repairable equipment rather than waste, that domestic discards rather than foreign dumping contribute significantly to trade and traffic, and that trade from rich ‘developed’ nations to poor ‘developing’ nations is a modest portion of e-waste flows relative to flows within these regions.

For example, Shinkuma and Huong (2009) demonstrate the importance of intra-regional trade and traffic of e-waste in Asia. They also note that a substantial portion of that trade, even when it moves from Japan to other Asian destinations, is predominantly about reuse, rather than waste dumping. A global synopsis of e-waste flows by Lepawsky and McNabb (2010) found that the international trade in e-waste does not break down along simple divisions between rich, ‘developed’ nations of the ‘global North’ dumping e-waste in the ‘global South’. Instead highly regionalised patterns exist. They show that trade within the Americas, Asia and Europe predominates. Consequently, they suggest, claims about the predominance of ‘developed’ countries dumping e-waste in ‘developing’ countries are more difficult to sustain. Yu et al. (2010) forecasted likely future e-waste scenarios in which e-waste produced in ‘developing’ regions will match and then exceed that produced in ‘developed’ regions by 2015, thus further complicating any pat storyline that presupposes e-waste flows from the developed to the developing world are the most important.

Examining flows of e-waste from the USA to Peru, Kahhat and Williams' (2009) study of trade data for used PCs found that 87–88% of used computers were of higher value than optimum value for recycling. Reuse, rather than recycling, is driving this trade. They also found Peru to be a net exporter of printed circuit boards to Germany and China. The former demonstrates e-waste flowing in the opposite direction that the dominant storyline emphasises and the latter illustrates trade between developing countries. Their follow-up study (Kahhat and Williams 2012) investigating the domestic flows and exports of used computers from the USA found the majority to be reused, recycled or landfilled domestically in the USA rather than exported. Similarly, a recent study by the US International Trade Commission (2013, xi) finds that ‘[o]nly a small share of U.S. exports of UEPs [used electronic products] was sent overseas for disposal’.

Outside of North America, a case study in Dhaka, Bangladesh (Lepawsky and Billah 2011) found recovery for reuse to be a dominant activity in the discard electronics recovery economy. Additionally, these authors found that other Asian countries, principally China, were by far the dominant sources of electronic discards into Bangladesh. That finding highlights two key issues: first, the important role of intra-regional trade between so-called ‘developing’ countries, and second, a need to question the basic premises of the dominant e-waste storyline.

Recent case studies from Africa further challenge the dominant e-waste storyline. For example, an ENGO preliminary study (which received acknowledge consultation by BAN) of Nairobi's e-waste situation reports that ‘[i]t can be assumed that 10% of all the refurbished computers imported in Kenya are non-recyclable and are therefore waste traded on or simply dumped to Kenya’ (Kiaka and Kamande nd, 3). The unstated corollary is that 90% of all refurbished computers imported into Kenya are recyclable. The report also states that one interviewee estimates that ‘5%–10% of what is bought from the warehouses is faulty and this is done deliberately by warehouse operators in a bid to dispose of the junk they import’ (p. 3). Again, the corollary is that between 90% and 95% of imported used electronics bought from warehouses is not faulty.

Recent studies available from The E-waste Africa Project (Anon nd-a) conducted under the auspices of the United Nations Environmental Programme and the Basel Secretariat provide additional evidence for a need to rethink the dominant e-waste storyline. A study in Ghana (Amoyaw-Osei et al. 2011) using data from the Ghana Customs, Excise and Prevention Services, interviews, field visits, surveys and stakeholder workshops states that:

imports into Ghana in 2009 added up to 215′000 tons and a per capita import of 9kg. About 30% comprised of new products and 70% second hand EEE [electrical and electronic equipment]. Around 15% of the second hand imports was estimated to be unsellable (i.e. would not respond to power, broken or outdated), a significant portion of which was destined directly to informal recycling. Another 20% of the imports can be serviced (re- paired/refurbished) to get them functioning.

Amoyaw-Osei et al. (2011, x)

The report also finds that ‘[o]f the 280′000 tons of obsolete devices generated in 2009 … [a]bout 171′000 tons of WEEE [waste electrical and electronic equipment] from consumers, repair shops and communal collection reached the informal recycling sector’ (pp. x–xi). What these findings mean, then, is that approximately 85% of second-hand imports to Ghana are sellable as used electronics, i.e. are not ‘waste’. It also means that more than half of WEEE in Ghana comes from domestic sources, rather than imports.

Also in West Africa, Manhart et al. (2011) using export data from Europe and fieldwork in Nigeria find that:

70% of all the imported used equipment is functional and is sold to consumers after testing. 70% of the non-functional share can be repaired within the major markets and is also sold to consumers. 9% of the total imports of used equipment is non-repairable and is directly passed on to collectors and recyclers.

Manhart et al. (2011, XII)

In other words, 91% of total imports of used electronics to Nigeria enter the country as functional or repairable equipment, not waste. A second study on Nigeria (Ogungbuyi et al. 2012) using similar methods finds that:

[a]pproximately 30% of second-hand imports were estimated to be non-functioning (therefore need to be declared as e-waste): half of this amount was repaired locally and sold to consumers and the other half was un-repairable. In the case of Nigeria, this was at least 100,000 tonnes of e-waste entering the country illegally in 2010.

Ogungbuyi et al. (2012, 3)

Thus, despite the report's references to ‘e-waste’, its own findings mean that 70% of second-hand imports are functioning. It also means that of the 30% that are non-functioning, half were repaired and sold locally, leaving 15% of total second-hand imports as non-functioning (and, by corollary, 85% functioning).

A preliminary study of the situation in Liberia also notes that, ‘[a]bout 70% of used EEE imports arrive in a functioning state’ (Strother et al. 2012, 3). Though the study points out that the used equipment typically has a short working lifespan, it also notes that new EEE product imports to Liberia also have ‘a low life expectancy just like second-hand products’ because authorities suspect ‘that many new imports are non or faked branded low cost Asian imports’ (Strother et al. 2012, 3). As such, the report highlights the important role of ‘south–south’ trade in e-waste. Moreover, though Strother et al. (2012) do not specify what constitutes ‘short’, their claim highlights a politics of judgement about what counts as short working lifespans and why singling out used equipment on these terms is problematic: a recent news item documents how a new smartphone line from a major brand released for retail on 3 May 2013 by a major Canadian telecommunications company was then designated by that company as ‘end-of-life’ 132 days later on 12 September (Hardy 2013).

What is striking is that in each of these African case studies, as well as those from Peru and Bangladesh, the dominant e-waste storyline is turned on its head: rather than imports predominantly being waste, they are instead, predominantly working and repairable equipment; in addition, domestic production of e-waste, rather than only imports (or ‘dumping’), is an important source. The trade in used but repairable equipment entangles a number of issues that make easy distinctions between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ difficult to judge: even reusable and repairable equipment will be discarded in whole or in part at some point, but before that, it supports livelihoods and employment, access to technology, technological upgrading, skill and knowledge transfer, innovation and creativity, and material inputs for productive industry – as well as significant toxic risks to people and environments (Lepawsky and Billah 2011; Minter 2013b; Anon nd-b). Moreover, the growing role of domestic production of e-waste in the ‘South’ means it is unrealistic to frame the e-waste problem solely in terms of waste dumped from abroad. Taken together these studies suggest a need to rethink the e-waste problem in both conceptual and policy terms.

E-waste and the Basel Convention

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. The E-waste problem
  6. E-waste and the Basel Convention
  7. A global synopsis of transboundary E-waste trade, 1996–2012
  8. Discussion
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

The Basel Convention is a key international agreement regulating international transboundary shipments of hazardous waste. The Convention came into force in 1992 and includes 175 signatories at the time of writing. In the e-waste literature the Convention is often referred to as international law that makes it illegal to dump hazardous waste, including e-waste, from rich, ‘developed’ countries in poor, ‘developing’ countries. This is certainly the spirit of the Convention but a careful consideration of its provisions suggests a murkier picture.

Portions of the Convention relevant to discussions of e-waste include Annexes VII, VIII and IX. Annex VIII and Annex IX respectively define what will and will not count as hazardous waste under the terms of the Convention. Both annexes contain a diverse list of materials with applicability to e-waste, but also highlight the Convention's ambiguity in that the same or similar objects and materials appear in both the hazardous and non-hazardous categories (e.g. categories A1180 and B1110 of Annex VIII and IX, respectively).

Annex VII is an amendment to the Convention adopted in 1995 (Basel Secretariat nd, 71). It defines signatories that are also members of either OECD or the EC, and Liechtenstein as a single group. The adoption of Annex VII is a step toward another amendment to the Convention called the Ban Amendment. Among other things, the Ban Amendment aims to prohibit all transboundary hazardous waste shipment from Annex VII signatories to all non-Annex VII signatories (Basel Secretariat nd, 6), regardless of what the intended shipment is for, be it final disposal, reuse, recycling or recovery. However, neither Annex VII nor the Ban Amendment are in force at the time of writing because neither provision has been ratified by a sufficient number of signatories to the Convention (the technical workings of the Basel Convention involve a series of steps before a given provision comes into legal force. These steps include ‘adoption’ followed by ‘ratification’. Only after ratification is a provision, such as Annex VII or the Ban Amendment, in force; see Kummer Peiry 1995, 2011).

What is more, the Convention's designation of Annex VII signatories and their corollary, non-Annex VII signatories, imagines two monolithic blocs of countries in which non-Annex VII countries are all equally vulnerable to hazardous waste traded from the OECD, EC or Liechtenstein, but are not in a position of vulnerability with respect to such trade amongst themselves (Lepawsky and McNabb 2010). This imagined geography of vulnerability bears scrutinising since there is considerable diversity within the non-Annex VII grouping in terms of relative and absolute wealth, as well as technological capacity for waste management. Consider that countries as diverse in these respects as Bangladesh, China, Ghana, India and Singapore are all non-Annex VII signatories. Yet, their status as such does not prohibit trade between these very differently positioned states.

In what follows, a synopsis of the international trade in e-waste with particular attention to the e-waste flows within and between Annex VII and non-Annex VII regions is presented.

A global synopsis of transboundary E-waste trade, 1996–2012

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. The E-waste problem
  6. E-waste and the Basel Convention
  7. A global synopsis of transboundary E-waste trade, 1996–2012
  8. Discussion
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

Unsurprisingly, the trade in e-waste is growing. Since 1996, total trade has more than doubled from almost 500 million kg to over 1 billion kg. What is surprising is how the geography of this trade is organised and breaks down regionally. Since 1996, trade from Annex VII to non-Annex VII territories has dropped dramatically, plummeting from over 172 million kg in 1996 to less than 7.3 million kg in 2012, a reduction of nearly 24-fold (see Figure 1). Trade in this direction did see a rise up to 36 million kg in 2008, the highest level in a decade, but this rise represents less than 6% of total trade in that year. Even at its peak in 1996, trade from Annex VII to non-Annex VII territories represented just over 35% of total trade. Since then, it has dropped dramatically, amounting to less than 1% of total trade by 2012.

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Figure 1. Inter-regional trade, 1996–2012

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Far more surprising is the dramatic rise in e-waste traded from non-Annex VII to Annex VII territories. From barely over 6.5 million kg in 1996, trade from non-Annex VII to Annex VII territories has grown more than 21-fold to over 140 million kg in 2012, bringing such trade close to the 1996 peak of trade in the opposite direction. In short, between 1996 and 2012 the dominant inter-regional trade pattern has been turned on its head: non-Annex VII territories are now the primary inter-regional traders of e-waste by weight. At the same time, the dramatic rise in trade from non-Annex VII to Annex VII territories in absolute terms represents a relatively modest proportion of total trade: its peak in 1999 represented just over 15% of total trade. Since then, non-Annex VII to Annex VII trade has fluctuated between approximately 7% and 12% of total trade in any given year.

Taken together, the trends in trade patterns just described mean that an important part of the story is a shift in the relative importance of intra- versus inter-regional trade in e-waste. From 1996 to 2012 intra-regional trade between Annex VII territories averaged over 73% of total trade. From 2008 onward it averaged over 82% of total trade. Intra-regional trade between non-Annex VII territories peaked in the year 2000 at slightly more than 24% of total trade. Since then, trade between non-Annex VII territories has fallen to less than 4% of total trade. What this means is that between 1996 and 2012 Annex VII territories became increasingly internally oriented, that is, trading for the most part amongst themselves. In contrast, non-Annex VII territories became increasingly externally oriented, predominantly exporting to Annex VII territories.

Examining the organisation of trade in 1996 and 2012 reveals significant geographic patterns and their differences over time, particularly when attention is drawn to the largest sources and recipients of e-waste (see Figures 2 and 3). In 1996 western European countries, the USA and Australia dominated the picture as sources of imports of e-waste, though with important differences in their respective trade partners (indicated by the different sizes of their nodes in the trade network). Germany, France, the UK and the USA are the predominant sources in terms of both number of territories reporting imports from them and volume of those imports. Australia, however, is a major source, but the bulk of its e-waste is imported by a single territory: Indonesia. Indonesia, in contrast, is the dominant recipient of imports from other territories. Its trade connections in 1996 are exclusively imports. Yet, Indonesia's situation in the international e-waste trade in 1996 is illustrative of the nuance needed for characterising the geographies of that trade. Of the top 10 sources of e-waste imports to Indonesia in 1996, Australia and Hong Kong took first and second place, respectively. Indonesia reported over 50 million kg of e-waste from Australia, an Annex VII territory and over 35 million kg from Hong Kong, a non-Annex VII territory. Under the Ban Amendment, the former would be prohibited while the latter would not, yet Hong Kong's 1996 GDP per capita at US$24 435 was more than 28 times greater than Indonesia's US$848, highlighting the significant differences within the non-Annex VII grouping. In 1996, Indonesia was receiving imports from both Annex VII and non-Annex VII territories. It reported imports from elsewhere in Asia (e.g. Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, mainland China and Hong Kong) as well as from territories in the Middle East (e.g. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Kuwait) and Africa (Nigeria, Cote d'Ivoire and Uganda). In other words, even at this early point in the story of e-waste, a more mixed geography of trade is evidenced than that circulated in the contemporary orthodoxy about e-waste dumping.

figure

Figure 2. Global e-waste trade network, 1996

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figure

Figure 3. Global e-waste trade network, 2012

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By 2012, the synopsis for Indonesia changes radically. Having been a net importer of e-waste in 1996, it is now a net exporter. The 10 territories that are sources of imports to Indonesia in 2012 are evenly divided in terms of their Annex VII and non-Annex VII status. The same is true for the six territories reporting imports from Indonesia. The USA, China and Singapore are the top three sources of imports to Indonesia, while mainland China, Republic of Korea and Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR) are the top three destinations for Indonesia's exports of e-waste. Indonesia imports from territories that all have higher GDP per capita than it does in 2012. Yet, all of the destinations for Indonesia's exports, except for the Philippines, also have a higher GDP per capita than it. Indonesia's situation thus suggests no clear picture of a pollution haven dynamic (see Lepawsky and McNabb 2010) at work and does not fit well with the dominant e-waste storyline.

The situation for the world's largest importer of e-waste in 2012, Mexico, is further illustrative of cross-cutting issues in the geographical patterns of e-waste trade over the 1996–2012 period. Unlike Indonesia's situation, over 99% of Mexico's imports come from a single source, the USA, and over 95% of Mexico's exports go to a single destination, also the USA. There is an order of magnitude difference in these two trade flows: Mexico reports over 387 million kg of e-waste from the USA, whereas the USA reports over 202 000 kg from Mexico; and Mexico's 2012 GDP per capita at US$8250 is more than fivefold less than that of the USA at US$43 063. At first glance, then, the scenario might be interpreted as a clear example of a poor ‘developing’ country importing e-waste from a rich, ‘developed’ one. Yet, the picture is not at all so straightforward: the third largest importer of e-waste in the world in 2012 is the USA (after Republic of Korea), reporting imports of over 41 million kg, of which over 39 million kg, or more than 94%, come from Canada. Three issues are worth highlighting here. First, there is clearly a very strong intra-regional component to the trade network within which Mexico, the USA and Canada are situated. That situation is likely a reflection of their trade relationships under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Second, no straightforward pollution haven dynamic appears to be at work. Certainly Mexico, by far the poorest member of NAFTA in terms of GDP per capita, imports the vast majority of e-waste amongst the three members of the trade bloc (and the world). At the same time, those territories reporting e-waste imports from Mexico are richer than it (USA, Canada, and Hong Kong SAR) and poorer than it (mainland China) in GDP per capita terms. Moreover, Mexico reports e-waste imports from several territories that are considerably poorer than it in GDP per capita terms, including Costa Rica, China and El Salvador. In percentage terms these latter trade flows are minuscule compared with what Mexico receives from the USA, but in absolute terms they represent significant amounts of material: over 839 000 kg from Costa Rica, over 202 000 kg from China, and just over 120 000 kg from El Salvador. Third, all three members of NAFTA are also OECD members which means that under the Basel Convention they are all also Annex VII territories. Thus, the massive flow of e-waste from the USA to Mexico – the largest single trade flow in 2012 – also represents trade that would be permissible under the Basel Convention if the Ban Amendment and Annex VII were in force.

By 2012, the picture of total trade in e-waste has changed substantially from that of 1996. Certain geographical patterns persist. The USA and western Europe remain the territories reported most frequently as sources of imports to other territories; the USA to Mexico flow of e-waste remains the single largest trade flow for those two territories. But, unlike 1996, no single territory operates as a key sink the way Indonesia once did – and, indeed, the pattern of senders and receivers differs substantially from those patterns evident in the 1996 data. For example, by 2012 several African territories are playing a substantial role as a source of exports to territories elsewhere, predominantly to Republic of Korea and India, but also to Israel, Belgium and Canada among others, a pattern that cannot be reconciled with the orthodox e-waste storyline.

Discussion

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. The E-waste problem
  6. E-waste and the Basel Convention
  7. A global synopsis of transboundary E-waste trade, 1996–2012
  8. Discussion
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

For over a decade the e-waste problem has been framed in terms of dumping of electronic discards by rich ‘developed’ nations in poor ‘developing’ ones. Such trade does occur. Yet, a much more nuanced interpretation of the international trade in electronic discards is needed. Patterns of trade have evolved markedly over the 1996–2012 period. Annex VII to non-Annex VII trade dropped sharply in the mid-1990s and has remained a tiny proportion of total trade since then, accounting for less than 1% of total trade in 2012. In contrast, trade from non-Annex VII to Annex VII territories has dramatically increased over the same time period in absolute terms, but it remains modest in relative terms. Intra-regional trade is, as Lepawsky and McNabb (2010) showed, a key dynamic of overall trade patterns. By 2012 trade within the Annex VII grouping accounts for over 99% of Annex VII trade and 82% of total global trade in electronic discards. In contrast, trade amongst non-Annex VII territories accounted for less than one-quarter of non-Annex VII trade and less than 4% of total global trade in 2012. In other words, for non-Annex territories the picture is one predominantly of inter-regional trade moving out of the region and flowing to Annex VII territories.

The geographical patterns described here play havoc with the neat, bi-modal world imagined by the Basel Convention and the dominant framing of the e-waste problem. It would seem that at least with respect to e-waste the Convention is regulating a geography of trade that is no longer relevant. Trade in e-waste predominantly moves from non-Annex VII territories to Annex VII territories, the opposite direction that the Convention's assumptions about vulnerability presuppose. The situation of specific examples within the Convention's designated blocs of Annex VII and non-Annex VII territories emphasises these issues: Indonesia, the dominant sink for e-waste in 1996 is, by 2012, a net exporter. In 1996 it imports from Australia, an Annex VII territory, and Hong Kong, a non-Annex VII territory. By 2012 Indonesia, now a net exporter, sends electronic discards to six territories, half of which are Annex VII and all but one of which has higher GDP per capita than it does. Mexico is the dominant import destination for US exports of e-waste throughout the 1996–2012 period. By 2012 that trade is the largest single flow of e-waste globally. Yet, Mexico and the USA are both OECD members and are therefore both designated Annex VII territories under the Basel Convention, making such trade permissible under Basel. In neither instance do the observed trade patterns fit well with either the Basel Convention's imagined geography of vulnerability or the received wisdom about the international e-waste trade.

Notwithstanding the important limitations inherent in the data analysed here, the results turn the dominant conceptual and policy framing of the e-waste problem on its head. Solving that problem – if indeed that is even an appropriate way of framing the issue – 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’. Much more varied patterns of trade are evidenced by the COMTRADE data analysed here and in a growing body of both grey and scholarly literature on the international trade and traffic of e-waste.

It is time to rethink the dominant way of framing global e-waste flows. Policies and legal frameworks drawing on the dominant framing typically advocate export prohibitions and promote a single version of recycling (i.e. product destruction or ‘shredding’) for material recovery (Lepawsky 2012). 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. To the extent that existing regulatory frameworks promote shredding they ensure that the environmental benefits to be gained from repairing, reusing and refurbishing equipment and components are lost (Barba-Gutiérrez et al. 2008); and, ironically given the explicit goals of such policies, they can end up disrupting the livelihood strategies of already poor and marginalised people and communities, thus increasing their collective economic insecurity (Williams et al. 2008; Yu et al. 2010). There are undeniable toxic impacts on people and environments associated with some forms of e-waste processing especially, but not exclusively, in developing countries (e.g. Alabi and Bakare 2011; Feldt et al. 2014; Jones 2010; Liu et al. 2011; Xing et al. 2010; Zhou et al. 2013). However, uncritically accepting the dominant storyline about the e-waste trade leading only to environmental and human exploitation – especially in light of the evidence presented here and in a growing body of scholarly and non-scholarly research – is unhelpful for solving the e-waste problem even in terms of its dominant framing because doing so 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 2013b). The dominant storyline about e-waste misses the dynamic action of reuse, refurbishment, repair and recycling that accompanies this trade. E-waste moves in complex trade circuits that, along with significant toxic risks to people and environments, also underpin extensive and dynamic rubbish recovery economies that support livelihoods and employment, access to technology, technological upgrading, skill and knowledge transfer, innovation and creativity, as well as material inputs for productive industry. To construe dumping as the primary problem of e-waste arguably undermines progress toward solving that problem so construed by narrowing the policy focus almost exclusively to the consumption and discard habits of consumers (typically in the ‘North’) while attenuating or avoiding attention to how that which will become waste is manufactured in the first place (Gille 2007). In this sense, the fixation on discards and the consumer habits that ostensibly generate them mean insufficient attention is given to how electronics manufacturing might be reorganised so as to promote durability, reuse, repair as well as recycling (Lepawsky 2012).

A richer approach to the geographies of e-waste would add questions of reuse, repair, refurbishment and material recovery to the issue of trade flows and their environmental effects. These questions, however, cannot be addressed well with existing trade data because such data contain no specific commodity codes related to reuse, repair, refurbishment or recovery (i.e. trade codes make no distinction between new and used electronic products; for a method that provides estimates of exports of used electronics from the US based on assumptions about the dollar value of exports, see Duan et al. 2013). Hence, the critical importance of fieldwork to ground-truth patterns apparent in such trade data and to elucidate the rich practices of reuse, repair, refurbishment and recovery of electronic discards. Attending to practices of reuse, repair, refurbishment and recovery highlight different sorts of issues around justice and equity not limited to dumping and its ill effects – though of course, these do not disappear as matters of concern nor should they be ignored. Reframing of the e-waste problem along these lines would make it an issue about waste and discards, but also about value, resources, who has access to them, and under what conditions. Such a reframing would serve to productively enrich the conceptualisation and policy discussion of e-waste as an issue of environmental and economic politics and justice.

Acknowledgements

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. The E-waste problem
  6. E-waste and the Basel Convention
  7. A global synopsis of transboundary E-waste trade, 1996–2012
  8. Discussion
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References

Generous support for this research is provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. I thank Erin Araujo and Chris McNabb for crucial research assistance. My thanks to two anonymous reviewers for their constructive suggestions that helped me improve the paper. Any errors or omissions remain my own responsibility.

References

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Introduction
  4. Methods
  5. The E-waste problem
  6. E-waste and the Basel Convention
  7. A global synopsis of transboundary E-waste trade, 1996–2012
  8. Discussion
  9. Acknowledgements
  10. References