Making And Unmaking E-Waste: Tracing The Global Afterlife Of Discarded Digital Technologies In Berlin
This dissertation examines the politics and practices of contemporary management of waste from electrical and electronic equipment (e-waste or WEEE) in Germany. Contrary to predictions that the digital revolution would lead to less resource-intensive and thus more sustainable societies, this study documents the opposite. Global consumption of digital technologies such as personal computers, cell phones and iPods is exacting significant environmental and health costs. Through ethnographic and archival research this project reconstructs how social actors, including policymakers, multi-national firms and informal recyclers, transform discarded technologies once they are placed on the curb. The resulting analysis shows how the environmental and social impact of a technological artifact extends over its entire lifecycle. Germany's reputation for exemplary waste management and, more generally, environmentalism, coupled with its status as Europe's largest e-waste producer and exporter, makes it a powerful site to examine the tensions and contradictions between national attempts to address e-waste and the existence of globalized licit and illicit ewaste networks that unequally distribute the associated pollution and wealth across the globe. This project integrates, builds on and extends scholarship from the fields of Science and Technology Studies and Development Sociology. Such an integration is necessary to analyze how the afterlife of electrical and electronic equipment is shaped by and reinforces uneven global political, economic and ecological relationships in a postcolonial context. Equally important, this work engages with recent debates in the social sciences on the boundaries between technology, society and ecology, the coproduction of the social and the material, as well as the relationship between globalization and the environment. It reworks and extends key concepts in the social studies such as fetishization, the black box, technological systems and regimes of perceptibility while proposing new concepts including the notion of "unmaking" and "the green box." As countries across the globe are struggling to manage their e-waste, this study of Germany offers important clues to the challenges associated with developing efficient and responsible e-waste management systems. Furthermore, this project provides a concrete ethnographic and archival study of the effects and limitations of national formulations of environmental policies in an uneven globalized economy.
Development; E-waste; Germany
McMichael, Philip David
Pfeffer, Max John; Pritchard, Sara B.
Ph. D., Development Sociology
Doctor of Philosophy
dissertation or thesis