The Second Law of Ecology is that “everything must go somewhere” (Commoner 1971, 39). Commoner’s law is based on two premises: that all matter is endurable and indestructible and that nature does not produce “waste.” Put another way, while everything produced by nature will find a use somewhere in the ecosystem, human societies’ waste can have harmful consequences for the natural world and for human societies. Certain aspects of this law, however, invite a deeper look, for the implication is that the “waste” modern human societies have produced has no additional use. How, then, to think about the potential value inherent in contemporary forms of waste originating in the discard of materials like electronics? And if one considers the different types of value that reside within waste, how does that sit in relation to the risks posed to people and the environment from the global waste trade? To envision more effective ways to mitigate the impact of human waste on a global scale, it is clear that we need an expanded conception of it that includes much more complexity.
In her book Waste, Kate O’Neill makes clear that defining waste is a complex, “perhaps impossible” task (26), a view that Josh Lepawsky shares in his book Reassembling Rubbish: Worlding Electronic Waste. Even with this recognition, both authors believe that there is much to gain in trying to comprehend not only the nature of waste but also its impact on people, industries, and ecosystems. These two books speak directly to questions about waste, value, and risk. And although the works differ in approach and scope—Lepawsky focuses exclusively on e-waste through the critical lens of geography, and O’Neill considers waste more broadly from a political economy perspective—it is clear that they are in constant conversation with each other in myriad important ways.
At the start of her work, O’Neill notes that her primary focus is to understand waste in the context of the “global political economy”—a lens that ultimately shapes the way she considers what can (and should) be done about the waste societies produce. She makes clear that her interest lies in conceiving of waste as a resource frontier, especially in recognizing “how much value is trapped in waste” and how that becomes part of a “new global waste economy” (5). O’Neill recognizes three types of value in waste, including waste removal, waste reuse and mining (“extractive value”), and waste diversion/reduction. She therefore contends that “waste needs to be re-imagined as a global resource, not a local problem” (10), and it also needs to be made visible for the creation and implementation of effective governance solutions.
O’Neill’s understanding of waste as a “global resource frontier” is complemented by her critical exploration of the significant risks—to workers and to the environment—and governance challenges that arise when attempting to mitigate the effects of waste on a local and global scale. She defines waste in many different ways that prove useful for her analysis—as a key input within a circular (vs. linear) economy, risk, externality, and a source of income for many people around the world. In so doing, O’Neill moves readers away from a narrow and simplistic conception of waste as a “drain” on economies and ecosystems to comprehend its nuance and intricacy.
Why study waste? O’Neill contends that exploring the many facets of waste has the power to reveal. Studying the way in which wastes are managed, produced, disposed of, and reused tells us about the objects themselves but also about the “political, social, and economic contexts in which they are embedded” (23); patterns of environmental injustice; how effective local governance is (or isn’t) in treating or preventing waste; the connection between the local and global; how corporate power grows in the global marketplace; and the many forms of transnational labor activism that occur in response to waste and waste management. As such, understanding waste is key to revealing the myriad aspects of our sociopolitical world, including global tensions, power inequities, societal structures, and connections between nations but also between the local and the global, global climate politics, gender inequities, and the relationship between the Global North and South. The case studies O’Neill presents in her book—electronic waste, food waste, and plastic—provide an in-depth view into how “the new global waste economy works” (29).
For each case study, O’Neill describes the risks, underscores the need to elucidate the full supply chain for wastes as a commodity, and describes the role that activism and governance can play to create change. The extractive value of e-waste in 2016, for example, has been estimated at € 55 billion, but the “urban mining” required to obtain it contains significant risks due to its toxic mixture of heavy metals and other dangerous substances. Governance innovations and local activism in response to these risks include “extended producer responsibility” (EPR) and the Right to Repair movement. Food waste, as a “mobile resource” operating in a highly complex global network, provides an important source of “input” that is not without its own risks: O’Neill notes that “if food waste were a country, it would be ‘the third largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world’ after the US and China” (122). Examining food waste highlights the need to understand a commodity’s supply chain from production (including “loss”) to consumption or discard. In focusing on patterns of inequality, including food sovereignty and security in developing nations, as well as the effectiveness of food waste governance, O’Neill’s research aligns well with other recent research (e.g., Blakeney 2019).
O’Neill’s final case study—plastic—proves to be a more difficult assessment. Unlike electronics or food waste, ascertaining the value in plastic is more complex, in part because of the nature of plastic itself: it “downcycles,” making it more difficult to recycle, and there is less money in it than in e-waste. It can neither be turned into compost nor feed people (except for those who harvest it to sell), making comprehension of its value as scrap a murkier process. Because of this, O’Neill notes that “plastic scrap may become subject to international trade rules as a good, or to international environmental rules as a hazard” (174). Still, her analysis of the economic potential of plastic from different vantage points is in line with other contemporary research (e.g., Rudolph 2017).
Each case study highlights not only the potential value contained in waste but, importantly, a clearer view of the complex relationships between the Global North and the Global South. As part of her analysis, O’Neill challenges a widely held misperception that the many types of waste flow only from the powerful North to a vulnerable Global South in a linear fashion marked by power inequity. For example, it is clear not only that nations in the South produce their own plastic but also that countries like China, which has taken much waste from the United States in the past, are pushing back against this with initiatives like Operation National Sword. O’Neill thus offers a more complex view of power when it comes to waste in a transnational context.
While O’Neill’s political economy perspective is instructive regarding the value and risks associated with different types of waste, it also creates some inherent contradictions, many of which remain uninterrogated. While recognizing the serious harms posed by wastes “that represent yet another dimension of humans’ deep impression on the planet” (173), O’Neill stops short of calling for a ban on them, concluding that because of their potential value in some markets, “it is not clear that global trade in plastic waste, as with electronics . . . can, or possibly should be stopped entirely” (174). When it comes to a political economy perspective that explores the convoluted relationship between value and waste, what is missing is a consideration of the monetary value inherent in a clean environment with healthy people (e.g., oceans free of plastic, healthy wetlands unspoiled by e-waste, and a healthy workforce not exposed to environmental hazards). A growing body of research assigns a monetary value to nature (Batker et al. 2008; Foster 1997; Turner et al. 2011). This different view of value is termed natural capital, which is an economic asset “nature gives … to us for free” (Helm 2015, 2). Given O’Neill’s political economic consideration of the financial value that waste can bring as an input in a circular economy, it would be useful to pay more attention to the economic detriment resulting from the loss of healthy, functioning natural environments, providing a fuller conception of the value of waste. O’Neill’s views on waste are thus complex and, at times, contradictory, which perhaps is fitting given her recognition of “how complicated a resource waste is” (3).
Similar to O’Neill, Lepawsky contends that studying waste serves to reveal, but what exactly it reveals is different for him. A geographer, he sees that “e-waste is allegorical. … Like stories about other forms of waste, stories about e-waste index visions of how the world ought to be” (5). Put another way, the stories we tell about e-waste provide normative ideals for the world, and thus it is crucial to examine how these stories are told and framed to envision effective solutions.
The primary question that animates Lepawsky’s book contains an ethical dimension in relation to values: “what is the right thing to do with e-waste?” To answer this, Reassembling Rubbish creatively and constructively engages with methods, theories, and approaches in geography, anthropology, literature, feminism, and philosophy. This multidisciplinary approach reflects Lepawsky’s belief that there is more than one way to answer the question, and yet he privileges one technique throughout his work—one that requires a “defamiliarization” with e-waste. Defamiliarization, as Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky (1991) conceived of it, serves primarily to interrupt our perception of what is familiar to us and invites us to consider alternate ways of seeing and knowing. In this vein, Lepawsky asks us to critically examine the ontological status of e-waste—is it waste or nonwaste?—and also asks us to challenge (in an epistemological sense) both what we think we know about e-waste and how we have come to know it. Only by “looking again in a different way” at e-waste can societies begin to critically evaluate how we got here and what should be done about it.
Like O’Neill, Lepawsky perceives that “e-waste is categorically indeterminate,” but this is not an excuse for inaction (99). Instead, he contends that we must take action based on what we know, even if that knowledge is imperfect. Toward this end, he carefully “maps” controversies like the Twelfth Conference of the Parties to the Basel Convention, discovering that the inability of the delegates to agree on the distinction between waste and nonwaste means that “there remains no legally precise way under the Basel Convention to distinguish between discarded electronics that are being shipped as waste … and those that are being shipped as nonwaste for other purposes” (20). The consequences of this disagreement aside, it is clear that this was not merely a disagreement over technicalities but instead represents fundamentally different ways of seeing. The inability to see value in “waste” is evident in the two court cases Lepawsky analyzes, where the “discard test” reveals that “the meaning of waste is not in the stuff itself. It derives only from what its holder has done with it, irrespective of whether the equipment might be economically usable” (55).
Of the two books reviewed here, only Lepawsky directly engages with defamiliarization as a technique, and yet both he and O’Neill encourage us to “look again” at two existing narratives that have shaped the way we think about waste. The first narrative is that the North–South power imbalance creates a simple, linear, and uniformly harmful disposal of waste. In the analysis of the controversial Basel Action Network report Exporting Harm, Lepawsky explores why the report’s high numbers (of undetermined origins) regarding e-waste exports from North to South have been reported so widely by so many other media and government organizations. To determine why, Lepawsky employs Bruno Latour’s “theater of proof” to analyze the imagery and language, finding that the allusion to experts and official sources through “modest witnessing,” use of familiar narratives about power inequities and the need for responsible recycling, and inclusion of the “migrant child” image made for a powerful and evocative text. Similar to O’Neill, Lepawsky not only interrogates the familiar narrative of the North–South flow of e-waste but also provides numerous examples to illustrate that the waste trade occurs as a multidirectional flow, not simply from wealthier to poorer countries but also between countries in the South as well as from South to North. In this way, both authors artfully challenge the oft-held belief in the Global North as the relentless originator of toxic waste and the South as the passive receiver of it.
The second narrative both authors refute relates to the widespread, deficient, and simplistic definition of waste, that is, that waste has no value due to the act of discard. In his interrogation of the conventional definition, Lepawsky recognizes that the global movements of waste should be seen not as simple dumping but instead as a complex trade for reuse that represents “the dynamic ecologies of repair, refurbishment, and materials recovery that drive that trade” (69). When disposal of end-of-life electronics occurs, then, it does so after a significant amount of repair and reuse. Neither author, however, denies the environmental and human cost of this trade. Lepawsky writes, “My argument is not that disposal of end-of-life electronics or the toxicological consequences thereof never occur. Instead, it is that when disposal does occur it is typically after multiple rounds of reuse, repair, refurbishment, and materials recovery” (69). Both books thus invite a more expansive view of waste, and yet there is more complexity discernible in each author’s treatment.
One key point of divergence between the authors’ work to comprehend waste comes from Lepawsky, whose more capacious definition is exemplified in his conception of discardscapes. He invites his readers to defamiliarize their knowledge of e-waste by recognizing minescapes (the waste associated with mineral extraction), productionscapes (electronics manufacture using materials and energy), and clickscapes (data storage and our online transactions, including “clicks” that we typically think of as weightless and wasteless). These contribute more e-waste from production and use than simply the postconsumer discards identified by the media and environmental nongovernmental organizations, prompting his recognition that “resource extraction for, and the manufacturing of, electronics generate vastly more waste than does the postconsumption discarding of gadgets” (130). Ultimately, Lepawsky adroitly elucidates the dangers of a myopic view of waste in only considering “the right way to handle waste after it already exists” (66).
In keeping with the idea that defamiliarizing what we think we know about waste enables more creative and effective solutions, Lepawsky’s proffered solutions in his conclusion are varied. He suggests “decriminalizing” exports of e-wastes intended for reuse and repair; supporting “ethical trade” in the reuse, recycling, and repair of electronics; creating additional oversight of the electronics industry; starting to “degrow” (reduce) pollutants from production, consumption, and discard; and (like O’Neill) creating effective EPR, which “shift[s] the costs of managing end-of-life equipment away from public authorities and general taxpayers and toward brand manufacturers” (167). In the end, although both authors productively consider the value of waste, Lepawsky demonstrates that an expansive view of waste in the context of values is the most effective way to see both the problems and the benefits waste creates.