Restart Podcast Ep 29: Tracing global flows of electronic ‘discards’ with Josh Lepawsky

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This week we talk to Josh Lepawksy – Associate Professor in Geography at the Memorial University of Newfoundland – about his work in the field of ‘Discard Studies’, which examines the way in which discards (waste) move through the world at local and global scales.

Josh’s research is specifically focused on electronic waste — his new book ‘Reassembling Rubbish’ (MIT Press) contains the insights gained from a five-year investigation into the global trade and traffic of discarded electronics.

He explains to us why the word ‘discards’ is useful in his field of study: the word ‘waste’ has become too familiar, conjuring up images of garbage bags and wheelie bins. These things to belong to a system that is much bigger, more expansive and more complex than what we generally imagine. Just like our sleek, sealed devices, the system is often a “black box” to us. The large-scale industrial processes by which global discards are taken apart, destroyed, redistributed or hidden are a far-cry from our experiences of household disposal.

Image source: https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/reassembling-rubbish

Of course, aspects of this bigger picture do occasionally make it into the news, especially those that centre around the ‘dumping’ of e-waste in ‘poorer countries’. But while there is certainly truth in shocking, photographic depictions of dumping and unsafe processing of electronic waste, they prevent us from understanding a more nuanced, global political economy of discards. There is so much more going on, even just out of the frame of these images.

Josh unpacks some of the complex rules and conventions governing global trading of e-waste, and emphasises that recycling must be re-framed as a single part of the story, rather than the whole story.

With a more holistic picture that incorporates the repair economy and other means of repurposing end-of-life products, we can begin discuss what a much more just and resource sufficient world would look like.

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