Urban Media Network Essay: Should Importing of Electronic Waste be Illegal in China?

Posted: June 16th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: waste industries | No Comments »

Part 1: Introduction

Mass consumerism in China has been caused by the rapid industrialisation of the country (Zehle, 2008). Economic growth leads to an increase in environmental impact (Alier, 2000). Electronic waste (e-waste) represents the biggest and fastest growing manufacturing waste in China (Chan and Ho, 2008).

With the rapid development of technology, many people can afford to often buy and change basic electronic items. From a consumer perspective, people tend to think about value for money and functionality purposes before they buy electronic items, very few consumers and perhaps producers, take into consideration of the result of the environmental issues caused by the production and the dealing with electronic items.

There is no direct definition of ‘e-waste’ because e-waste has different definitions to different people in different countries (Terazono et al, 2006). A 2nd hand electronic item for a person might be considered as e-waste for another person. The problem of defining ‘e-waste’ makes the enforcement of e-waste difficult to deal with (Wu, 2009). However, this essay defines ‘e-waste’ as any electronic items which have been used and the owners do not want to continue using them anymore. This could be due to broken parts items or changes in the consumers’ behaviour.

Before 1996, many countries exported e-waste to China. E-waste has been a major problem in China as there has not been effective control in dealing with e-waste. According to Tong and Wang (2004), China has become the largest receiver of e-waste from the developed countries. The use of unskilled labour and inappropriate technology make it cheap for the country to get rid of e-waste (Tong and Wang, 2004, Terazono et al, 2006). However, since 1996, it has been illegal to import e-waste into China and this was implemented in order to manage the environmental impacts.

E-waste from other developed countries could be 2nd hand products to China. Levin (2009) reported that Wang, a spokesman for the China National Resources Recycling Association said that the “Chinese tradition is all about saving and being thrifty”. They prefer to repair and refurbish e-waste before throwing them away. However, whether they could repair or reuse the e-waste or not, in the end, the items would still belong to China, which increases the quantity of e-waste in the country. Furthermore, some Chinese electronics repairers still choose to import e-waste from other countries in order for them to repair and reuse or resell them to local Chinese consumers.

The visit to South Gate Market, Ningbo (Picture 1)enabled the Urban Media-Network students (09/10) to realise that there are many electronic items, especially televisions (Picture 2) lying around the market and it is assumed that they are unwanted electronic waste and are waiting to be recycled.

Picture 1: South Gate Market, Ningbo

Picture 2: Unwanted Televisions

This essay argues that importing of e-waste should be illegal in China. Part 2 explains why creative industries have been viewed as being irresponsible for e-waste. Part 3 looks at the reason why the importation of e-waste still exist in China though it has been illegal to do so. Part 4 evaluates the consequences of importing e-waste into China. Part 5 concludes that the importation of e-waste should be illegal in China unless the Chinese government can regulate the e-waste industry and control the impacts of dealing with e-waste have on the environment and people. This part includes relevant solutions and problems in order to maintain or reduce the amount of e-waste in China.

Part 2: Cause of Electronic Waste – Irresponsible Creative Industries

Creative industries are irresponsible for their creative products. According the Creative Economy Report (2008), the United Kingdom Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS, 2001, 11) proposed that creative industries are industries which require “creativity, skill and talent which has the potential for wealth and job creation through the exploitation of their intellectual property”. Examples of creative products include electronic items such as IPODS, IPHONES, televisions, printers and laptops.

The main objective for most electronic companies is to launch advanced products, with modern designs, containing high speed technologies and high resolutions. Few companies pay attention to what happens to the previous products that consumers bought from them. Many companies think that as long as they can make profit, gain customer satisfaction and create brand reputation in the market place, they will launch the products.

Consumers have low environmental awareness on electronic production and e-waste recycling (Meng, 2009). The interviews with electronic consumers that were done for this research (2010), found out that the main factor which influences the consumers’ decision before they buy an electronic item is value for money, which includes factors such as price, quality and performance.

Electronic waste is a major issue to e-waste factories and people who lives around those factories, but it has NOT been a major issue in creative industries. The main page of most creative industries websites consists of all the relevant information that consumers have to know including, the price, model and product specification. However, the main page contains limited information about the company being responsible of their products at the end of the product life-cycle. Consumers who are environmental friendly will need to search for the ‘Corporate Responsibility’ link in order for them to gain more information about how the company is responsible for their products at the end of its life cycle. As a result, very few consumers would search for such icon and this reflects that not many consumers care about e-waste.

Regarding Apple’s website (as shown in Picture 3), there is an icon that links consumers to view the Apple Recycling Programme, which describes the possible ways that consumers can do in order to recycle different parts of Apple products. For example, consumers can bring Apple batteries back to any of the Apple’s shop and it will be recycled for free. This shows that the company is trying to be responsible for its products when the products have reached the end of their life- cycle.

Picture 3: Apple Recycling Program

On the other hand, Dell’s website had announced general information about being responsible with their products (Picture 4). However, there is no specific information on what consumers could do in order to recycle Dell’s products.

Picture 4: General Information about Dell being Corporate Responsible

Regarding the interviews with one of the 2nd hand electronics shops (2010), the researchers found out that individual consumer gets rid of their electronic items by selling them to the local junk man. Then the junk man will sell them electronic components to local wholesaler for them to deal with. If the shop receives any electronic items from the junk man, they would try to repair them and sell them as 2nd hand products. If the item reached the end of its life-cycle, they would separate the components into parts which could be sold for money and those parts which could be recycled. The price of components would depend on the market. There would be trucks from Taizhou and Guangzhou coming to collect the items. These two cities contain the major recycling factories in China.

Picture 5: 2nd hand electronics lying around 2nd hand electronic shop

Improper ways of dealing with electronics could cause adverse environmental problems such as pollution and production of toxic air in the environment (Tong and Wang, 2004). Therefore, the researchers asked the staff whether there are environmental regulations in the e-waste recycling industries and they said there are regulations which large factories have to meet. In terms of labour working conditions, they are aware of the way e-waste recycling factories deal with its e-waste having impact on workers’ health but they did not mention about any specific health issues. At the end, the researchers were told that no one really cares about how much profit they make in the business or whether they are dealing with the impact of e-waste on the environment and workers’ health. As long as money could be earned, the business continues.

The researchers concluded that due to the rapid innovations of electronics, the price of 1st hand electronics have dropped dramatically. If electronics are bought for personal use, consumers will choose to buy 1st hand products as the price difference between 1st hand and 2nd hand is not much. Therefore, refurbishing and reusing 2nd hand electronics is being environmental friendly but if 2nd hand electronics are sold at inappropriate prices, then 2nd hand products will eventually be another category of e-waste.

In short, creative industries are the initial cause of e-waste. Creative industries have produced items which caused environmental problems for recycling factories to deal with them. Because electronics are things which consumers have to buy and use, there is nothing much that a consumer can do to influence the production (said by one of the electronic consumers). Therefore, as e-waste has not been a major issue to creative industries and consumers, the responsibility of managing e-waste is left to the e-waste recycling factories.

Part 3: Why Importation of Electronic Waste Still Exist in China?

Soft logistics regulation is another cause of the continuous existence of importation of e-waste. Rossiter (2009) defined logistics as “the management of global supply chains and labour regimes”. This could include any software used to manage, control or input container information, keeping track on the containers and any performance measurement software that measure workers’ actual working hours and workers’ work performance.

Rossiter (2009) further questioned the failure of databases on the logistics containers information that still allows e-waste to be shipped into China even though it is illegal to import e-waste. This is because people involved in the shipment have successfully ‘disguised metal scrap and electronics products’ (Tong and Wang, 2004, 641). They have estimated that 700,000 tons of e-waste was imported through the Yangtze River delta in Beijing Zhongse Institute of Secondary Metals (2002). However, the methods used to estimate the amount of e-waste is not compatible among countries (Terazono et al, 2006). Therefore, there is a problem in relying on the e-waste figures.

Recycling factories deal with unwanted steel, copper and unwanted semi-deconstructed metal waste (Wu, 2010). However, small amounts of e-waste are hidden in containers which came from aboard and this does not cause problems in passing through custom, but sometimes they are forfeit (said by one of the recycling factories). This means that there have not been full inspections on containers entering into China and exporters have not been declaring honestly about what they are exporting to China.

Picture 6: EGO Digital Plaza
Therefore, due to soft logistics regulations, there has been continuous existence of the importation of e-waste into China.

Part 4: Discussion – Should Importing of Electronics Waste be Illegal in China?

Importation of e-waste into China has both positive and negative sides. Part 4.1 argues that if importing e-waste into China is made legal, the importation will bring benefits to individuals and China. Part 4.2 reflects that because dealing with e-waste can cause environmental issues and health problems, the importation of e-waste into China should be illegal.

4.1: Importation of E-waste should be Legal
Due to the amount of land, space and workforce that China has, many companies have outsourced their electronic products to China for production and therefore, many items have been labeled ‘Made in China’. As China has taken the responsibility of the production stage, it should also take the responsibility of dealing with the recycling stage. Also, the 2008/09 world economic crisis had impacted the recycling market adversely and therefore many Chinese people ended up being unemployed. Importation of e-waste should be legal due to the following reason.

Reason 1: Employment Opportunities
Importing e-waste will give working class people employment opportunities to work in the e-waste factories (Terazono et al, 2006). In terms of individual benefits, people will have their own incomes and savings, which can help to pay their debts and resolve their poverty issues. In terms of the whole country’s benefits, the unemployment rate would be reduced. This essay assumes that developed countries are waiting to export e-waste to China as it offers a reasonable price. With a large workforce being unemployed, if importing e-waste is made legal in China, the unemployment rate would decline and the economy is likely to grow further.

Reason 2: Individual Consumption Benefit
By importing unwanted electronic items, Chinese people could gain consumption benefit (as found out from the fieldtrip). In other words, e-waste in other countries is money for China. Wu (2009) reported that there are illegal e-waste factories in Shanghai to refurnish the imported e-waste and sell them as 2nd hand electronics. This means that the imported electronics could be reused in China but it must be sold at a reasonable price. If this system is managed and controlled effectively, it will be an environmental benefit to the whole world as well.

Picture 7: E-waste or 2nd hand electronics?

In short, if China imports e-waste from other countries, it could bring benefits to individuals and the Chinese economy. However the effectiveness of dealing with electronic waste would highly depend on the level of strictness. As being environmental friendly is costly (according to Wu (2009) equipments to treat e-waste could cost as much as 15 million RMB per company), electronic producers and e-waste recycling factories would not take this issue into consideration.

4.2: Importation of E-waste should be Illegal
Even though dealing with imported e-waste brings benefits to the Chinese people and the Chinese economy, however, if they are not dealt with in appropriate ways, the ‘contamination of electronic production’ (Zehle, 2008) could cause problems as explained below.

Reason 1: Health and Safety Regulations
Chan (2009) proposed that the three major issues of labour condition in e-waste industries are: job security, the use of contingent labour, and the fair and fixed-term labour contracts. These include the danger of the working environment, hiring child labour and unpaid overtime work.

According to Maxwell and Miller (2008), the process of e-waste recycling in China has adverse impacts on the environment, human health and human safety because materials such as plastics and metals contain cadmium and mercury could affect the biological development of children. In additional to Maxwell’ and Miller’s (2008) opinions, if e-waste recycling factories still do not pay immediate attention to the basic protection against toxic metals and if it does not care about the workers’ lives, other countries should continue to stop exporting e-waste to China.

Rossiter (2009) appreciates that improving labour conditions could cost the company a lot of money. As a result, improving labour conditions is a cost to the company while it is a benefit to many workers. In order to raise the standard of working conditions, solving the health and safety issues of e-waste factories, the government play a significant role in collaborating with the electronics producers and e-waste recycling companies.

Reason 2: Damaging the Environment
Improper ways of dealing with e-waste not only result in significant negative effects on the workers’ health and people living around e-waste recycling factories, but it also affect the environment (Tong and Wang, 2004). For example, the burning of plastics components or other non-recyclable materials sends toxic gas into the air (Tong and Wang, 2004). This damages the environment and affects both workers’ health and the surrounding residents.

As there is no proper control in the e-waste industry (Terazono et al, 2006), there is no reliable methods to obtain the data on the quantity of e-waste being imported or the quantity of e-waste China produced locally (Maxwell and Miller, 2008). Therefore, it is difficult to convince people on the adverse impact that e-waste is harming on the Chinese environment.

In short, due to the inappropriate technologies and ineffective ways of dealing with e-waste in China, many people’s health and the environment are affected by the impact of e-waste. Therefore, the importation of e-waste in China should be illegal in order to maintain or limit the quantity of e-waste in the country so that the impact does not rise.

Part 5: Conclusion and Discussion

Should importing of electronics waste be illegal in China? The answer is the importing of e-waste should still continue to be illegal in China.
Furthermore, there should be stricter control in customs so that the quantity of e-waste in China will not rise. With this policy, environmental issues and people’s health problems will not be on the increase.
However, if a stricter policy is enacted resulting in little of no e-waste entering China through imports, as a consequence, many workers who work in the e-waste industry will find themselves without jobs.

Even though e-waste recycling factories have been using improved technologies and have intensive management, the government could still further mitigate environmental issues (Chen et al, 2010, 366).

Firstly, there should be deeper collaboration between government, producers, consumers and recycling factories. For example, when consumers want to recycle their unwanted electronic items, the government has to ensure that there are recycling facilities available for people to do so (suggested by an electronic consumer). If not, consumers might just put the electronic items into an ordinary bin and it would be mix with other items, which makes it less likely to be identified as e-waste later.

Secondly, as the initial cause of e-waste issue comes from creative industries, the government should increase incentives for producers to change the earliest stage of material flow (Tong and Wang, 2004). ‘Corporate Responsibility’ increases brand recognition and reputation of the company. Producers should take responsibility for the products which have reached the end of the life expectancy in order for their brands to have better reputation. Moreover, the government should educate consumers about the concerns of e-waste to increase the people’s awareness. This communication could be done through media by showing the possible impacts and environmental transformation (Zehle, 2008).

Thirdly, the government could subsidise creative products’ materials and use materials which are less harmful to the environment (Wu, 2009), because most producers find it challenging to accept the additional of financial issues for disposing their end-of-life products (Tong and Wang, 2004).

Lastly, this essay would like to suggest that only if the Chinese government could regulate and manage the domestic e-waste in China, then it should change the regulation for the country to be able to import e-waste legally from other countries in order to increase employment and consumers benefiting from gaining 2nd hand products as stated in Part 4.1.

Chan, Jenny and Ho, Charles (2008) The Dark Side of Cyberspace: Inside the Sweatshops of China’s Computer Hardware Production, Berlin: World Economy, Ecology and Development (WEED).
Chan, Jenny (2009) ‘Meaningful Progress or Illusory Reform? Analysing China’s Labour Contract Law’, New Labour Forum 18 (2): 43 – 51.

Chen et al (2010) ‘Study on adverse impact of e-waste disassembly on surface sedium in East China by chemical analysis and bioassays’, J Soil Sediments 10: 359 – 367.

Davis, Mike (2008) ‘Who Will Build the Ark? The Utopian Imperative in an Age of Catastrophe’, Brecht Forum.

Dwivedy, Maheshwar and Mittal, R.K (2010) ‘Estimation of future outflows of e-waste in India’, Waste Management 30: 483 – 491.

Greenpeace (2008) Chemical Contamination at E-waste Recycling and Disposal Sites in Accra and Korforidua, Ghana.
Levin, Dan (2009) ‘China’s Big Recycling Market Is Sagging’, The New York Times, 11 March.
Maxwell, Richard and Miller, Toby (2008a) ‘Creative Industries or Wasteful Ones?’, Urban China 33: 28-29.
Maxwell, Richard and Miller, Toby (2008b) ‘Ecological Ethics and Media Technology’, International Journal of Communication 2: 331-353.
Martinez-Alier, Joan (2000) ‘Environmental Justice, Sustainability and Valuation’, Harvard Seminar on Sustainability.
UNEP-Vital-Graphics (2004) Vital Waste Graphics. E-Waste: The Great E-waste Recycling Debate, October.
Rossiter, Ned (2009) ‘Translating the Indifference of Communication: Electronic Waste, Migrant Labour and the Informational Sovereignty of Logistics in China’, International Review of Information Ethics 11.
Terazono et al (2006) ‘Current status and research on E-waste issues in Asia’, J Mater Cycles Waste Manage 8: 1-12.
Tong, Xin and Wang, Jici (2004) ‘Transnational Flows of E-waste and Spatial Patterns of Recycling in China’, Eurasian Geography and Economics 8: 608 -621.
UNCTAD and UNDP (2008) Creative Economy Report 2008, http://www.unctad.org/en/docs/ditc20082cer_en.pdf
Waldmeir, Patti (2010) ‘China’s Irregular Recyclers Face Scrapheap’, Financial Times, 15 March.
Wu Jiayin (2009) ‘The Junk Man Cometh: But He Won’t Recycle’, Shanghai Daily, 16 February.
Zehle, Soenke (2008) ‘Network Ecologies: Documenting Depletion, Exhausting Exposure’, Urban China 33: 30-31.
Unpublished Papers and Research
Meng (2009) ‘An Investigation of the Situation of E-waste Recycling: Concerning the Recycling Industry in Ningbo’
Urban Media-Network researchers (2009/10) includes N.Rossiter, Y. Wu, Y.Huang, Y.Lv and M.Pratheepwatanawong

Documentary: Electronic Produccts and Electronic Waste

Posted: May 14th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: video, waste industries | No Comments »

The documentary covers the interviews which were done with 2nd hand electronic shop and electronic consumers.

As many of us own at least 1 electronic item, the documentary enable us, as a consumer, to realise more about the electronic stuff that we are using.

The documentary covers the extent to which people are concerned with environmental issues and labour working condition in the electronic waste recycling industry. It looks at the general information about 2nd hand electronic items. It researched on how people deal with their unwanted electronic products. It asked people for suggestions on who do they think is responsible for e-waste and how e-waste management should be improved. Finally, the documentary reviewed the factor that influences people’s decision before they buy electronic products.


Fieldwork: E-waste

Posted: April 26th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: waste industries | Tags: | No Comments »

On 9th April 2010, the Urban-Media Networks team carried out the second fieldwork focusing on e-waste management in Ningbo. We visited Tianyi Digital Plaza, EGO Digital Plaza and South Gate Old Product Market.

The second-hand staffs are not equal as e-waste which actually is the next process of second-hand electronic products. Just as one staff we interviewed said, the useless parts of the second electronic products are regarded as e-waste and sold to people from Guangdong and Taizhou. What’s more, there is another channel to collect e-waste, which is from the junk men in the resident areas. If people prefer throwing the useless electronic product just for convenience instead of selling them to others, then it is necessary for people to have an awareness of categorizing rubbish, or it will not only pollute the natural environment, but also be a kind of waste of resources.

Literature Review_’Creative Industries or Wasterful Ones’

Posted: April 25th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: creative industries, real-estate, waste industries | No Comments »

Creative Industries are no doubt with a clean image comparing with those manufacturing counterparts with visible wastes produce. Anyhow, in the article ‘Creative industries or wasteful ones’, Maxwell and his colleagues reveal the dark side or the by-products creative industries create due to heavily relying on electronic technologies. Computers parts, TVs, mobile phones mp3s and other e-devices therefore contribute to a new even more toxic industry- an unbeknown one. The toxic process starts from the unawareness of knowledge of e-waste recycling which involves health risks for workers in the value chain and pollutions to land and water.  And the trend of e-waste from developed countries/regions to developing countries/regions calls for responsibilities both from countries and companies involved. The authors also call for users /public require the ‘clean’ industry be less ‘wasteful ‘by slowing down the business for a while in regarding the proper usage and treatment of e-waste.

It’s indeed an inspiring article which reveal not only how clean becomes wasteful but also the relationship between technology and moral issues. In addition,  consumers and civil society can use their power to claim for the right for the workers and  a less polluted environment which help to prevent the ‘wasteful ‘ industry not  go too far. In short, we are not facing the challenge of new technologies with unwelcome by-products. Instead, we need to inspect why and how we modern society use it for what purposes. Always do the right things and do things right.

Further thoughts and action plan

Our team got an initial action plan that we’re going to share this e-waste knowledge with local environmental protection NGO to see how academic resource can contribute to local communities .A further study will be conducted in the following days to explore another unbeknown wasteful aspect of the ‘clean industries’ in Ningbo-soil pollution on the demolishied factory sites where new Creative Industries and Real Estate Clusters are built.


Maxwell, Richard and Miller, Toby (2008a) ‘Creative Industries or Wasteful Ones’, Urban China 33:28-29, http://orgnets.net/urban_china/maxwell_miller

Fildwork_ 22, April, 2010: Some thoghts on Soil Pollution—living in a toxic cluster?

Posted: April 23rd, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: creative industries, real-estate, waste industries | No Comments »

This post just recorded an interview to an ex-specialist in Chinese Environmental Protections Authority and personal fieldwork on 22 April, 2010. In Ningbo, some residential clusters and creative industries clusters are built on the site which used to be factories that facing the risk of polluted soil.

 There are some key problems I observed.  First of all, there are no clear standards for soil background survey before the land used to be rebuilt. In additional, the ‘Polluter pays’ principle needed to be improved  to specify the responsibilities between the former and current users of the polluted land as well as to specify the roles of  different local government departments(Urban planning and construction authorities, Environmental Protection Bureau and the Health Bureau ). Case study will be done for Land of Beijiao Road 151, Ningbo developed by Younger Group for a high-end cluster. Another factor is the lack of public awareness. Especial in a crazy hot time for real estate, consumers don’t have any background knowledge and choices to evaluate the overall conditions of the property before they invest. Although there is little voice trying to question the environmental issues, most investors don’t realize they are in a big risk living/working in a toxic cluster. The aftereffect will be obvious in coming years.

Calls for improvement will focus on policy making and powerful implementation from local governmental level. Developers (companies) should also take responsibility in dealing with the polluted land including background survey before construction and controlling new pollution for the new clusters which are legal and moral requirement for responsible developers. In addition, idea of Environmental Insurance is useful for companies in the case when pollutions happen. Last but not at least would be that public education and media release will help raise the public awareness which might lead to campaigns by buyers or local civil society

Reference Mr. Tang Shiming, Interview on 22 April, 2010

Field Trip_E-Waste Industries_20100409

Posted: April 18th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: creative industries, waste industries | 1 Comment »

On 9th April, Ned and UMN team scheduled a second field trip for the e-waste topic. Since unfamiliar with e-waste industries at the very beginning, we have done the preparation with not so wise strategies. When I got contacted with one proposed observation spot, a metal waste treatment park, I asked directly about e-waste recycling treatment, and the park personnel denied immediately and explained that it’s because e-waste is illegal to import and the park is mainly dealing with the imported metal waste, so they don’t do e-waste at all. I followed a question of what exactly metal waste in the park. They range from discarded steel and copper to other semi-deconstructed metal waste, for example, some wasteful part of cars or an electrical motor from huge equipment. In fact, it’s hard to distinguish electronic waste from others. The personnel also admitted that sometimes their shipments may have some e-waste inside, but there is pretty small part otherwise custom would detect and forfeit the whole shipment. The final question is asked about that if those waste are not completely de-constructed and then how they deal with them. The personnel confirmed only manual redistribution by workers for current stage. With this telephone interview, as we were informed no e-waste spot could be available to visit, we gave up the original proposal. However, in the class discussion later on, our team member Angela provided some important information from her friend who works in the park confirming that there are some factories doing e-waste treatment informally.

The final field trip was to visit some second-hand electronic product (e-product) markets. In the morning, we firstly visited Tianyi Digital Plaza and then YiGao Digital Plaza. Both sell brand-new e-products, repair the broken, purchase the old and resell the second-hand. When we visited the floor especially bearing upon old e-products, we randomly interviewed some shop owners while not so many of them willing to answer our questions. We learned that currently the old product sources are mainly from domestic, and just a few from the foreign countries which is less and less because of the channel to get them is illegal (the same reason mentioned by the personnel from waste park). We also found even in a small market, there exist some business chains. For example, some only repair the chip-boards for second-hand e-product shops.

After team lunch, Mukda, Yulin and I visited South Gate Market, the biggest old product market in Ningbo. We could see a lot of old products sold or discarded by their previous users redistribute there, some lots of crashed televisions, some for air conditioners. We tried to search second-hand e-product shops, but, quite rare could be found before we jumped in the one introduced by a friend who had experience buying old stuffs here. Afterwards we understood that the declining number of second-hand e-product shops is because of less profit margin squeezed by decreased prices of new e-products and less customers. We chatted with staffs there and watched them working on the site. They introduced that after collecting back some old products, the first step is to de-construct each part and test performance. If any part is broken, they will try to repair or get a replacement. Then, it will be cleaned and reassembled to a well-functioned one for customer selection. Regarding those useless parts or unsold e-products, they consider them as absolute e-waste and move them out. Some junk man from Guangdong province or TaiZhou district would come and collect them. These e-wastes are sold per  kilogram, and the prices are quite regularly fluctuated and mostly decided by raw material market.  When transported to the following destination, these e-wastes will be crashed down in order to extract metal materials.

During this field, we found two different characters practically bound with these old e-products: e-waste and secondary resource. Regards with the industries chain or network, it might be the end of a chain as so called e-waste; on the other hand, it is the starting point as the secondary resource of a new industry chain.

1. Below are a few pictures of the field work.

TianYi Digital Plaza_Third floor for old e-product market

South Gate Market_ A shop corner storing old household electrical appliances

2. some videos from internet highlighting e-waste

HACK – E- Waste

One report investigating e-waste in Australia (then think about China status which is obviously more decades behind)


An interesting video metaphorizing the potential destructive power of e-waste.

Field Trip on E-waste

Posted: April 10th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: waste industries | No Comments »

On Friday the 9th April 2010, Ned Rossiter, Wu Yang, Lv Yulin and I visited Tian Yi Digital Plaza, EGO Digital Plaza and South Gate 2nd Hand Market in Ningbo. Our purpose was to investigate on how electronic  waste are being managed in the country, where did the e-waste come from and where are they going and the current situation on the 2nd hand electronics in the e-waste industry.

(As the investigation have been carried out in Mandarin, below is my general understanding of the field trip.)

From 10 am to 11:30 am, we were at the two digital plaza walking around on the top floor, which was the floor where electronics are being repaired or they have reached the stage of the product life-cycle which they are ready to be recycled or put into the bin. By popping into a few shops asking them questions about the 2nd hand products, we found out that 2nd hand electronics are from local individuals  who wanted to use new models and new products launched in the market recently. 2nd hand electronics are sold to small businesses which aim to save cost in buying electronics. If electronics are  for private use, customers tend to buy new products as they believed that it will last longer. How much profit they get from selling 2nd hand electronics would depend highly on the model of the product, the number of years which the customers have used it and the remaining life expectancy of the products.

From 12:15pm to 1pm, we walked around South Gate 2nd Hand Market. We could hardly find any shops that sell or repair electronics. As soon as we found Wu Yang’s friend’s electronics shop, we popped in to asked a few questions. We found out that other electronics shops in South Gate have been closed down due to poor business. As this shop has been opened for 10 years, they could still survive in the industry because of good relations with old customers and old customers would tend to introduce this shop to new customers.

After buying products back from their customers, they would do their best to repair them so that they could earn some money by selling the products to other customers. If it is impossible to repair the products, they would deal with the external and internal parts by separating them into materials which could be sold for some money and materials which are valueless. Currently, there is no specific price for the any materials because the price depends on the economic situation and therefore the price varies from day to day. As an electronic shop which sell new products, repair and recycle old products, they survived in the industry as long as there is some profit for them to make.

In terms of electronic waste, the staff in the shop are aware on how much e-waste could damage the environment. Moreover, they are also concerned with the health of people who deal with the next step of the e-waste.

Further thoughts: In summary, Wu Yang, Yulin and I concluded that in order for the quantity of e-waste in China to be reduced, electronics should be repaired so that customers could reused them again. In addition,  2nd hand electronics should be sold at reasonably low price so that customers would be more willing to pay for the 2nd hand products.

Due to the rapid development and innovation of technology in countries like Japan and America, e-waste in these countries could be regarded as 2nd products in developing countries like China. Therefore, we assumed that the policy of importing e-waste have sustained environmental issues in China (as China does not have to deal with imported e-waste), but reusing electronics from other countries would benefit the Chinese customers as they get to pay lower price for the product which could be consider as ‘new’ to them. More importantly, this would also benefit the world’s environmental situation in the long run.

Further research: For the next field trip on e-waste, we plan to find out more about how the Chinese government is involved in managing the local e-waste, how could e-waste be managed more efficiently and the labour condition e-waste industry.

Literature Review on “Creative Industries or Wasteful Ones?”

Posted: April 7th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: waste industries | No Comments »

The success of e-waste management should not be judged only on the efficiency of the recycling process, but more attention should be paid on the labour condition in the e-waste industry. Therefore, it is extremely important for e-waste recycling companies to reflect on the concerns of labour health and safety issues, the amount of wage which the workers are getting, the number of working hours per day and other benefits which they get from the company.

Labour working condition plays a significant role in any operating or manufacturing process. If companies could reach the standard of labour condition, workers would be motivated to perform well at workplace.

Maxwell, Richard and Miller, Toby (2008a) ‘Creative Industries or Wasteful Ones?’, Urban China 33: 28-29.

Essay Question: SWOT Analysis of How Electronic Waste in Ningbo Should be Governed?

Posted: March 27th, 2010 | Author: | Filed under: waste industries | Tags: | 1 Comment »

With reference to the previous year essays on e-waste and the field trips in the following few weeks, I would be able to identify both the Strengths and Weaknesses of  e-waste industry, and investigate whether the e-waste industry is sagging.

With regards to the set readings and further readings, I will be able recommend on any Opportunities available and suitable for the e-waste industry to be governed and managed more efficiently. Furthermore, I will point out any concerns and Threats which prevents the e-waste industry to achieve its objectives.

The essay will emphasize on the Opportunities and Threats, which means that the main arguments will be provided in these two sections.

If anyone has any suggestions on the content of the essay or on the research, please feel free to let me know.

Translating the Indifference of Communication: Electronic Waste, Migrant Labour and the Informational Sovereignty of Logistics in China

Posted: November 18th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: waste industries | No Comments »

[By Ned Rossiter, published in International Review of Information Ethics 11 (2009)]

‘As long as there are people on this planet, the waste industries will never die. So we’re not worried about the future of the industry’.
– Owner of a small e-waste processing business in Ningbo, China.

This essay is interested in the relationship between electronic waste and emergent regimes of labour control operative within the global logistics industry, the task of which is to manage the movement of people and things in the interests of communication, transport and economic efficiencies. Central to logistics is the question and scope of governance – both of labouring subjects and the treatment of objects or things. The relation between labour and electronic waste constitutes a milieu (environment) and population (of human and technological life) whose communication comprises a unique multi-scalar space that severely tests techno-systems of governance. In registering the contingency of governance – its capacity for failure or oversight – this essay signals the uncertainty that underpins the technics of control special to logistics.1 At stake is the connection between the milieu and the labour of human life.2

Paradoxically perhaps, conflicting governance regimes make possible the production of non-governable subjects and spaces. Electronic waste and many of those working in its informal secondary economies can be considered as occupants that reside off the grid. Such positioning in itself does not constitute a political program or articulated agency. Non-governance should not, in other words, be assumed to be synonymous with some kind of counter-political force. This would be the error of translation understood as a system of equivalence in which an a priori relation exists between, for instance, non-state actors and political agency. Indeed, it may even be desirable for biopolitical powers to ensure a non-governable dimension in order to manage the political, economic and environmental problem of electronic waste – the maintenance of unregulated informality serves as one of the structural resources that sustains the current economy of waste. Since there is no globally implemented consensus or treaty and quite frequently an absence of national legislation on how to address the economic and social life of electronic waste, it helps to reflect on the question of e-waste by taking this ‘indifferent’ status of e-waste as a point of departure – both technically within logistics software and politically within the institutional limits of the state apparatus. As I argue below, such indifference comes at a potential political and social cost, one that sees a further expansion and penetration of biopolitical technologies of control over the relatively autonomous aspects of labour and life.

To complement the various hypotheses above, this essay also addresses the relation between regions and the composition of labour in electronic waste industries in China. The multiplication of regions through practices of translation coextensive with the movement of people, language, technological protocols and things presents a serious challenge to regions as they are defined by hegemonic orders and interests. A region such as the European Union, for example, is translated as a legitimate political, economic and social entity through an ensemble of institutions (state governments, international institutions, universities, cultural organizations, labour unions, etc.). While there may be numerous instances of dispute and conflict between such actors, ultimately the fact of their relation serves to mutually reaffirm the legitimacy of the EU as a region. But to reduce the configuration of a region to such translation devices alone is to overlook the diverse practices and technics through which spaces and populations are comprised. The battle of hegemony, in this sense, is a contest over idioms of translation.

Similarly, the social practice of translation brings into question the analytical modalities that assume the existence of the region as a set of stable coordinates and coherent institutional practices that facilitate economies of depletion.3 In the case of the global logistics industries, the rise of secondary resource flows accompanying the economy of electronic waste is coextensive with the production of non-governable subjects and spaces. I suggest that the relation between these entities constitutes new regional formations that hold a range of implications for biopolitical technologies of control.

Multiplication and Division

With their capacity to adapt flexibly to a range of circumstances and skill requirements, the rural migrant worker in China is arguably the exemplary post-Fordist subject rather than, as often assumed, the specialist work of the designer, architect, filmmaker or ad-man attributed to the figure of cognitive, creative or immaterial labour. Such a distinction in the body of labour-power points also to the residual class dimension of post-Fordist labour, which in this case is frequently underscored by the spatial division between rural provinces and metropolitan centres. Ethnic divisions also prevail, with the rural migrant worker often enough not belonging to the Han Chinese majority population.4

Fieldwork undertaken earlier this year with my MA students in Ningbo – a 2nd tier and major port city a few hours south of Shanghai – began to make visible (at least for us) the ‘division and multiplication of labour’ within the electronic waste industries.5 Mezzadra and Neilson:

By speaking of the multiplication of labor we want to point to the fact that division works in a fundamentally different way than it does in the world as constructed within the frame of the international division of labor. It tends itself to function through a continuous multiplication of control devices that correspond to the multiplication of labor regimes and the subjectivities implied by them within each single space constructed as separate within models of the international division of labor. Corollary to this is the presence of particular kinds of labor regimes across different global and local spaces. This leads to a situation where the division of labor must be considered within a multiplicity of overlapping sites that are themselves internally heterogeneous.6

And as Neilson elaborates elsewhere:

It is crucial to note that the multiplication of labour does not exclude its division …. Indeed, multiplication implies division, or, even more strongly, we can say multiplication is a form of division.7

Hierarchies of labour separate the first stage of waste processing and storage from the initial collection of unwanted trash in the cities of China. The looped tape recording of diannao (computer/electronic brain) and kongtiao (air conditioner) rhythmically alerts locals to the arrival of the junk men and women as they move about neighbourhoods on a bicycle equipped with a flat tray for the transport of waste. Situated among those at the bottom of the supply chain of electronic waste industries (others working in particularly toxic conditions include children who dissemble electronic products, stripping copper from plastic casings while inhaling poisonous fumes from incineration), the junkmen are among the most transient in the economy of e-waste. The working life of junkmen is one of low income and frequently changing low-skill jobs determined by the fluctuation of market economies and the informal social networks and family demands that shape the movement of populations from country to city, job to job. Here, we see the multiplying effect of labour: while hierarchically distinct from other modalities of work in the economic life of electronic waste, the job of the junk men and women is underscored by mobility and uncertain transformation. It is unlikely, in other words, that waste collection is a job for life.

A different story prevails, however, in the case of many of the small businesses that deal with the sorting of electronic waste. Like many Chinese cities, the waste collection centres dispersed across the neighborhoods and districts of Ningbo are pivotal sites in the social and economic life of electronic waste. Often run as small family businesses, these recycling centres can be divided along formal and informal lines, both with differing degrees of toxicity in terms of the type of waste materials collected. Of the thousand or so businesses with official licenses to operate in Ningbo (a legal requirement in Zhejiang province), there are many more that exist illegally. At 6000 RMB (approx. 600 Euros), the annual license fee is a costly obstacle for many, yet it offers a level of economic and political security not afforded by the illegal collection centres. The official sites tend to have a regular network of waste suppliers based on guanxi (social relations or networks) and, unlike the illegal sites, do not negotiate prices. This in turn affords the junkmen a level of guaranteed income, albeit with wildly fluctuating and typically declining prices over the past year. Trading prices for metals are set each morning according to futures markets, which are usually accessed as daily updates by mobile phone more often than through computers.

External and internal forces have placed enormous pressure on the recycling industry and labour conditions across China. The owner of one small licensed recycling company we spoke to, who had been in business for 15 years, made note of the Chinese Labor Contract Law, which came into effect in January 2008, making it harder for companies to sack employees.8 He offered this reference as an indication of the more stable and secure working conditions for the migrants he employs from Jiangxi and Húnán provinces to the west of coastal Zhejiang.

By contrast, reports produced by various human rights NGOs and environmental monitoring organizations document numerous instances where workers’ rights are violated in the electronics factories and recycling industries, with excessive and often unpaid working hours, hiring of child labour, gender divisions, dangerous working conditions, suppression of efforts to organize labour and strike actions, fines and punishments for violation of highly punitive rules (correct haircuts, smoking in designated areas, improper attire, wastage of water, making noise, posting or distributing unauthorized articles, etc.).9 More broadly, in her assessment of the legislative reform of labour conditions, Jenny Chan notes ‘severe rights violations in at least three major areas: job security; the use of contingent labor; and fair, fixed-term labor contracts’.10 Worker layoffs from factories have also been on the rise since the end of the Chinese new year – the social effects of this became rapidly clear, if relatively short-lived, on the streets of Shanghai and Ningbo, with increased numbers of homeless migrants and visible instances of untreated mental illnesses.

Improved labour conditions are often perceived by businesses and investors to come at a cost rather than a benefit in terms of higher productivity through workplace stability. Other economic forces impact in more immediate ways. Since 1st of January 2009, recycling companies have had to absorb the cost of a 17% value added tax – a burden not suffered by other industries. This comes on top of an enormous drop in prices of around 50-60% for recyclable metals due to the global economic recession. With successive months of depressed prices, the global recycling economy is now dire. In China, this manifests in the form of massive stockpiling of waste that cannot be sold. There are additional storage costs and increased health risks associated with prolonged exposure to inventory accumulation of toxic metals, to say nothing of increased pressures on labour.

Another owner of a Ningbo recycling business, Mr Yu, assessed the situation in the following way earlier this year:

Metals and papers are online transactions. Copper and aluminum are sold and bought in the futures markets. For China, marketing Chinese products is fine, however, in the global market it is hard to do good business. I have to purchase and sell the waste at cheap prices. I suppose the economy will improve. Copper makes more profits, however it makes me lose more money. Now the price of copper is 17 yuan/500 grams compared with the previous price (27/28 yuan / 500g) – we lose 10 yuan per 500g. We are a small business. Foreign waste such as plastic, copper and aluminum are packaged and put into containers that are transported to Beilun dock.

The Battle of Standards

The connection made here between electronic waste and the maritime industries is worth noting. Despite the fact that importation of electronic waste in China has been illegal since 1996, much of the movement of waste from North America, Europe, East Asia and Australia is channeled through the ports of China.11 There’s a story to be told here about the global logistics industry. In short, logistics is concerned with the management of global supply chains and labour regimes. The electronic waste industries obviously fit into that schematic. Aided by software applications and database technologies, logistics aims to maximize efficiencies at all levels. In terms of labour management, the optimum state of governance arises at the moment in which the execution of a task, or Standard Operating Procedure (SOP), is registered in the real-time computation of Key Performance Indicators (or KPIs). In other words, the labour control regime is programmed into the logistics chain at the level of code. Similarly, the governance of labour is informatized in such a way that the border between undertaking a task and reporting its completion has become closed or indistinct. As such, there is no longer a temporal delay between the execution of duties and their statistical measure.

The potential for escape, invention and refusal become severely compromised within such a biopolitical regime of control, one that is already dominant for millions working across the world in different industries articulated with global logistics systems. Moreover, and most oddly, it would seem that the capacity for capital to renew itself is substantially challenged within such a system: logistics aims to diminish the force of contingency, which plays a key role in the emergence of innovation upon which the reproduction of capital depends. Do we find here, then, an instance whereby capital programs its own obsolescence?

An important control device in the maritime industries is radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, which registers the geographic position of ships and goods and assists in the management of inventories and the efficiency of supply chains. While RFID technologies are indifferent to the matter of things, and thus do not discern between, say, automotive parts or textiles on the one hand, and electronic waste on the other, their database logic nonetheless identifies the content of motion. In other words, the database provides a record of that which migrates from one place to another. And in the case of electronic waste, there are strict national and international regulations governing its transport and treatment. But since, as noted earlier, electronic waste is deemed an illegal import in China, it is questionable whether it falls into the purview of the database and its informatized sovereign power. Like many countries, electronic waste holds a contradictory status within the rule of law in China, with waste businesses requiring a license to operate, as mentioned previously.

In another respect, the connection between electronic waste, logistics and software systems constitutes the battle of standards across idioms of translation. The governance of labour associated with electronic waste varies enormously depending upon whether or not the movement, economy and treatment of e-waste is made visible by logistics software used in maritime logistics, to take one example. In such a case, there are industry, state and union standards that shape the conditions of labour and management of waste. Logistics software facilitates such relations by tracking cargo movement, registering times of passage in global supply chains and accounting for inventory accumulation. The standards established in such an economy run into conflict, or are just modulated differently, when the circuits of labour and resource flows associated with electronic waste are translated through less formal standards found in economies not officiated by the state. The case of electronic waste in China is one of these economies. The sex-trade in and across many countries and regions would be another.

Translation can be understood in one sense as the process of establishing standards expressed through a community of practice. In Naoki Sakai’s terms, this is the ‘homolingual’ operation of translation.12 Yet such an occasion should not be seen as the end-point of translation, but rather in terms of the instantiation of a particular border that promulgates new modes of practice and relation. Indeed, it is precisely the scene of conflict that attends the drive toward standardization that raises the problem of translation.13 The example of standardization in the shipping and transport industries helps clarify this process.

The standardization of shipping containers from the 1950s was accompanied by disputes between engineers, corporations and governments over competing economic and geopolitical interests in the transport industries.14 By the 1970s a global standard in containerization had been established, around the same time economic globalization came into full swing following the end of the Bretton Woods Accord in 1971 and the oil crisis of 1973. Such cursory contextualization indicates that standard containers did not alone determine or create economic accumulation (the same might be said for logistics software). Marc Levinson notes that by the late 1960s,

The economic benefit of standardization … was still not clear. Containers of 10, 20, 30 and 40 feet had become American and international standards, but the neat arithmetic relationship among the ‘standard’ sizes did not translate into demand by shippers or ship lines. Not a single ship was using 30-foot containers. Only a handful of 10-foot containers had been purchased, and the main carrier using them soon concluded that it would not buy any more. As for 20-foot containers, land carriers hated them.15

Conflicts over standards in logistics and software systems define the terrain of translation in more recent years. Logistics, as defined earlier, is concerned with maximizing efficiencies in global supply chains and labour regimes. Once the logistical problem of container standardization had been resolved, the work and political economy of translation shifted to data standards. While present in a primitive form in the 1960s, the computerization of transport industries did not really take off until the 1980s following the standardization of shipping containers and the advent of just-in-time production. Effectively integrating and simulating the logic of containerization in order to produce enhanced efficiencies, the information architecture of code can also be understood as a container or silo formation.16 Again, the drive toward interoperability across different software systems is an example of translation as homolingual address or equivalence.17 Software technologies are key devices in the translation of labour and the mobility of things as actionable, visible and subject to control and instrumental consolidation. Once registered within the database logic of informatized sovereignty, electronic waste and its modalities of labour and social life become governable within the economy of real-time. Such an idiom of translation is one of co-figuration and equivalence, to draw on the formulation of Sakai. Yet logistics software consists of multiple standards whose disparities in code produce conflict and competition in the effort to determine systems commensurate with the demand for intermodal freight transportation, pervasive labour management and economic hegemony. Such tensions over standardization give rise to the heterolingual dimension of translation – its social practices of ‘differential inclusion’, struggle and multiplication – that confers a non-governable potential to electronic waste.18

While I am in no way idealizing such practices – as noted earlier, there is enormous social, environmental and individual damage that attends the toxic life of electronic waste – I wish to stress that once captured within the instrumental world of logistics that economizes labour, life and space according to efficiencies in time, the work of translation becomes automated and effectively annulled. And it is precisely at this moment of informatization coupled with logistics that the region becomes constituted within the sovereign space of the database. Once code is king the variable capacity of labour, life and things finds itself subject to an intensive form of territorial and proprietary control that formal settings such as ASEAN, APEC and NAFTA can only gesture towards.19 But no matter how much communication regimes may be indifferent to noise, contingency, feedback and indeed life itself, the difference necessary for the work of translation is never entirely eradicated by techno-scientific systems.20 More likely certain modes of labour and life simply migrate off the radar and subsist instead in a world of non-governance, by which I mean idioms of expression, practice and economy external to the state-corporate nexus that defines contemporary sovereign power.21

The Limits of Translation

With its indifference to matter, substance or qualities and concern instead with the management of mobilities and efficiencies of action, logistics dispenses with borders that distinguish labour, life and milieu.22 In doing so, the constitutive differences that make possible the translation of relations between labour, discourses, social-technical practices, economies and geocultural formations is surrendered to the world of ubiquitous homologies.23 What I am calling ‘ubiquitous homologies’ stems from the political economy of globalizing design industries (where architecture begins to resemble a sports shoe, toothbrush, motorbike, office chair, computer monitor, etc.), and shares something with what Sakai terms ‘co-figuration’, ‘linguistic equivalence’ and ‘homolingual address’ – all of which are homogenizing operations of translation that comprise the sovereign power of the nation-state.24

This is the limit of translation, and hence the scene of the political. With borders (limits) comes struggle. It may seem a contradiction is at work in this formulation: the subtraction within logistics of constitutive differences does not immediately lend itself to the idea of the political as the struggle with borders. Nor does such a formulation of logistics as a system of techno-social and economic practices of indifference to borders correspond with the concept of translation, which both assumes and requires difference as a condition of operation. How, then, to address the political and conceptual challenges that attend the rise of new indifferent forms of communication and governance? The erasure of constitutive differences through the biopolitical power of logistics defines the limits of translation. But the occlusion of difference should not be taken as some kind of finitude since the coding of indifference in itself multiplies the fields of distinction through the force of relations.25 There are and always will be relations. In this process new border struggles are comprised and the work of translation is remodulated in ways coextensive with the production of subjectivity.

The analysis of electronic waste flows serves to cleave the inter-relations of software, labour and logistics in order to identify how the indifference of communication special to logistics technology points to the limits of translation, which holds implications for biopolitical regimes of governance. The heterolingual address of translation is the analytical method that makes visible the possibility of escape from biopolitical technologies of control at work in the global logistics industry. Or, rather, the non-governable dimension of social and economic life within the electronic waste industries asserts a singular indifference to the regulatory control of logistics. This is the practice of refusal. The extent to which labour and life can withstand the encroaching predisposition of logistics as a control system par excellence is – in part – a matter of time, capital and the sovereign demand that populations comply with technologies of governance.

A study of the economies and socialities of electronic waste in China helps illuminate the political status and potential of non-governable subjects and spaces. The earlier discussion of labour and the circuits of exchange in Ningbo’s electronic waste industries are a case in point. As forms of social relation, the labour and economy in Ningbo’s e-waste industries operate outside the scope of state-corporate regimes of governance supported by logistics technologies of control. Of relevance here is the constitution of regions and the politics of translation in order to address an emerging tension of scale that extends more broadly to the global management of labour and life at play in the logistics industry. Such an analytical strategy indicates how the problematic of non-governable spaces and subjects – for better and worse – reside beyond the ‘informational sovereignty’ that imbues the biopolitical power of logistics. The social practice of translation (re)constitutes regions as they figure around the economy of electronic waste. Translation here is not so much a conscious act on the part of workers in electronic waste industries – at least not in any way that I am capable of discerning – as a social-technical relation of exteriority that arises through structural conditions and the techno-social operations of logistics software managing the movement of labour, commodities, resources and finance. What I am calling a social-technical relation of exteriority extends to the challenge of method and analysis: there is always the subject that resides beyond comprehension, that refuses to be known as such – something Gayatri Spivak carefully analyzed as the politics of the subaltern condition.26

In so far as that which is perceived or manifests as non-governable – the labour and economy of electronic waste, in the case of this essay – some final points can be proffered. The spatialities of non-governable subjects constitute regions in ways that do not readily correspond with more hegemonic regional formations. Translation thus becomes a form of inventing new circuits of movement. Within such a context, regions become contested geocultural and political spaces, bringing into question the dominant understanding of regions as defined within the political-economic discourses of trade agreements, innovation and knowledge transfer and statist formations of geopolitical equivalence such as ASEAN and its expansion into ASEAN+3 (China, Japan, South Korea) and ASEAN+6 (Australia, New Zealand, India). Regions, when understood as conflictual constitutions underscored by the movements and frequently informal practices of language, culture and labour, comprise geocultural formations that seriously question the power of border technologies such as trade formations, migration and labour regimes, state alliances and global logistics. Moreover, the analytical method of translation as social practice and heterolingual address initiates a critique of sovereign power by elaborating the tensions embedded within the informal and formal dynamics of geocultural configurations. Sovereign border regimes, in other words, are brought into question with the rise of non-governable subjects and spaces associated with the social-economic life of electronic waste.

Informal circuits of exchange comprise the multiplication of economies that attend the movement of electronic waste. Such configurations may be territorial in terms of the distribution of waste, as seen for example in the intra-national or trans-regional economies of electronic waste. Within this complex of relations there is a sense in which the non-governable aspects of labour, waste and economy reside outside the biopolitical power of logistics technologies.

While this essay has concentrated on the very localized case of electronic waste in Ningbo, there are always multi-scalar dimensions and circuits that both manifest in the local and connect the local to the trans-territorial whose specificities reconfigure how the regional comes to be understood. As long as the movement and treatment of electronic waste evades the sovereign power of informatized logistics, then the connection of waste with regions remains open to the possibility of multiple configurations.

Thanks to Soenke Zehle and Brett Neilson for comments and critique of earlier drafts of this essay. The text also benefitted from questions and discussion at the Inter-Asia Cultural Typhoon Conference, Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 3-5 July, 2009.

  1. A parallel can be found here with Schumpeter’s logic of ‘creative destruction’, where failure becomes the source of renewal in the reproduction of capital. The prospects for a politics of refusal within such a system become extremely depressing in so far as it is unlikely to do much more than reinforce the power of the hegemon. Such a scenario returns us, yet again, to the core question: what is politics?
  2. See Georges Canguilhem, Knowledge of Life, trans. Stefanos Geroulanos and Daniela Ginsburg, New York: Fordham University Press, 2008. See also Michel Foucault, Society Must Be Defended, Lectures at the Collège de France, 1975-76, trans. David Macey, London: Allen Lane, 2003 and Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics. Lectures at the Collège de France, 1978-1979, edited by Michel Senellart, trans. by Graham Burchell, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008.
  3. On translation as social practice, see Jon Solomon, ‘Re: A Hierarchy of Networks?, or, Geo-Culturally Differentiated Networks and the Limits of Collaboration’, posting to edu-factory mailing list, 23 January, 2008.
  4. See Steve Hess, ‘The Ethnic Explosion at Shaoguan: Weighing in on the Labor Export Programs of Southwest Xinjiang’, China Elections and Governance, 8 September, 2009. See also China Labor Watch, ‘Labor Violations Exacerbate Ethnic Tensions in South China’, 6 July, 2009.
  5. Students were enrolled in a module entitled Urban-Media Networks in the MA International Communications, University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China. Module blog: http://orgnets.cn. For an analysis that offers more specific detail of e-waste in Ningbo, see Meng Xing, ‘An Investigation of the Situation of E-waste Recycling: Concerning the Recycling Industry in Ningbo‘, 2009.
  6. Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, ‘Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labor’, transversal (2008).
  7. Brett Neilson, ‘The World Seen from a Taxi: Students-Migrants-Workers in the Global Multiplication of Labour’, Subjectivity 29 (forthcoming).
  8. See Jenny Chan, ‘Meaningful Progress or Illusory Reform? Analyzing China’s Labor Contract Law’, New Labor Forum 18.2 (2009): 43-51.
  9. See Jenny Chan and Charles Ho, Dark Side of Cyberspace: Inside the Sweatshops of China’s Computer Hardware Production, Berlin: World Economy, Ecology and Development (WEED), 2008.
  10. Chan, ‘Meaningful Progress or Illusory Reform?’, 46.
  11. For maps and a short overview of e-waste flows in the East and South Asian regions, see UNEP, ‘The Great E-Waste Recycling Debate’. See also Richard Maxwell and Toby Miller, ‘Creative Industries or Wasteful Ones?’, Urban China 33 (2008): 28-29, 122. Also available in English.
  12. See Naoki Sakai, ‘Translation’, Theory, Culture & Society 23.2-3 (2006): 71-86 and Naoki Sakai, Translation and Subjectivity: On ‘Japan’ and Cultural Nationalism, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997.
  13. Thanks to Brett Neilson for highlighting this formulation.
  14. See Marc Levinson, The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006, 127-149.
  15. Ibid., 144.
  16. Thanks to Julian Kücklich for bringing this point to my attention.
  17. There is a strong case to be made here for understanding the network structure which defines contemporary relations of communication and economy in terms of the principle of ‘notworking’. For an elaboration of this concept and condition, see Geert Lovink, The Principle of Notworking: Concepts in Critical Internet Culture, Amsterdam: Hogeschool van Amsterdam, 2005.
  18. On the concept of ‘differential inclusion’, see Neilson, ‘The World Seen from a Taxi’.
  19. Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand); Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (21 members); North American Free Trade Agreement (Canada, Mexico, United States).
  20. The indifference of communication is equivalent to self-referentiality, which is another way of saying that such systems are high on redundancy. This said, it would be a strategic mistake to think that such operations are without material effects.
  21. I understand this relation not in terms of some kind of absolute exteriority – a position increasingly untenable in a capitalist and techno-social system of immanence – but rather in terms of a ‘constitutive outside’. For an elaboration of this concept as it operates within network societies and information economies, see Ned Rossiter, Organized Networks: Media Theory, Creative Labour, New Institutions, Rotterdam: NAi, 2006.
  22. While some of the key voices of Italian political philosophy – notably Virno, Lazzarato and Negri – maintain that the borders of language, political action, labour and life have become indistinct with the advent of post-Fordism, my interest in this essay is to maintain a conceptual separation between categories of this sort in order to suggest how the control society instantiated by the global system of logistics and its use of software to manage labour practices amplifies even further the increasing indistinctions between labour, life and the possibility of a politics of refusal. This argument is developed further in Ned Rossiter, ‘The Logistics of Labour, Life and Things: Maritime Industries in China as a Biopolitical Index of Sovereign Futures’, unpublished paper, 2009.
  23. See Sakai, ‘Translation’ and Translation and Subjectivity. See also Rada Ivekovic, ‘Transborder Translation’, Eurozine (January 2005)
  24. The work of ‘heterolingual address’, by contrast, engages the antagonism of incommensurability within cultural difference, thus providing a basis from which to critique – among other things – the geopolitics of sovereign power.
  25. The indifference of logistics to borders is only internal to its technics of operation – a kind of generic predisposition – and does not hold a determining force in any totalising sense or ‘last instance’. With reference to Randy Martin’s An Empire of Indifference, Brett Neilson suggests that at work here is perhaps not ‘an indifference to borders so much as a process of commensuration across borders’. Certainly such an understanding corresponds with the much-vaunted ambition on the part of computer engineers and their policy advocates (to say nothing of academic devotees such as Henry Jenkins and advertising gurus) to arrive at a state of ‘convergence culture’ (or, more simply, economic globalization in its social-technical form). While this may indeed be the case, in the passage below I’m also wishing to invoke this dynamic of communicative – and thus spatial – indifference in terms of the social and economic dimensions of electronic waste as an assertion of refusal, irrespective of whether or not such a practice is fused with political content. The key question here is: What expressive capacity might non-governable subjects and spaces consist of? Brett Neilson, email correspondence, 7 September, 2009. See also Randy Martin, An Empire of Indifference: American War and the Financial Logic of Risk Management, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2007.
  26. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, ‘Can the Subaltern Speak?’, in Nelson Cary and Lawrence Grossberg (eds) Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1988, 280-281.