Circuits of e-waste and value: making e-waste subjects in China and Japan - Anna Lora-Wainwright and Peter Wynn Kirby

Waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE also known as "e-waste") is currently the fastest growing solid waste stream on the planet. Its management has been recognized as one of the major challenges of the 21st century, not only by the scientific community but also by international and national authorities, activist organizations and the multinational corporations which produce it. Yet WEEE is not only a technical or ecological problem to be managed but also deeply rooted in social relations, economic opportunities and cultural contexts.

This project investigates how ‘e-waste subjects’ are forged out of the circulation and processing of electronic waste in China and Japan. It explores how those involved in processing e-waste interpret and evaluate its environmental health threats and economic benefits. The investigators conduct highly sensitive ethnographic research in notorious and still poorly understood e-waste processing locations in China, as well as in post-tsunami zones and in a high-tech e-waste recycling plant in Japan. The project contributes to interdisciplinary scholarship on waste and to studies of citizens’ attitudes to pollution and risk via a rigorous comparative approach.

This project started in 2012 as a collaboration between Dr Anna Lora-Wainwright and Dr Peter Wynn Kirby (a research fellow generously funded by the John Fell OUP Fund), with strategic help from Prof. Liping Li (Shantou University). Preliminary analysis of the rich data collected began in 2013, resulting in single and jointly authored publications, including a special issue of the journal AREA on Peering through loopholes, tracing conversions: remapping the transborder trade in electronic waste co-edited with Peter Wynn Kirby. The special issue included selected contributions from a very successful international conference entitled "Mapping Environmental Cultures: Comparative Approaches to Waste in China” (16-17 Sept 2013, held at Balliol College, Oxford) with additional funding from the ‘Environmental Cultures Network’ (BICC phase 2). The project was awarded a three-year Leverhulme Trust Project Grant (2015-2018) titled “Circuits of Waste and Value: Making E-waste Subjects in China and Japan” (RPG-2014-224, £322,557).