“…More than something done merely for survival, the practice of scavenging may come to possess value detached from the particular worth of the things one finds”
Recycling is a multi-million pound industry (Ditum 2012 and Harvery 2012); from second hand clothing to extracting precious metals, from charities to technological businesses, extracting value from our waste in the fast-paced consumerism obsessed world has never been more lucrative. But is it lucrative for everyone in the supply chain? Richer countries seem to have advantageous profits in every way; ridding themselves of waste, extracting profit, placating hyper-capitalist guilt with thoughts of charity and the environment, and even up-cycling trash into art. The picture for countries with less stable economies is reported to be quite different though; ship-breaking, second-hand clothing reformation and burning off precious metals from obsolete technology all take a toll on local environments and the health of local communities (see above Pieter Hugo photograph of Agbogbloshie in Ghana, further explanation to follow later). Whilst it has become fashionable to be ‘eco-chic’ and ‘eco-savvy’, where ‘eco-‘ could arguably be interchangeable with ecologically or economically, there is a dark underside to these industries that creates huge costs in terms of lives and safe habitats. Our abilities to transcend previously held taboos about reusing other people’s waste mean that one’s trash could well be another one’s treasure, for instance the huge popularity in purchasing good quality second-hand clothing in countries as diverse as England, Hungary (Thorpe, 2011), and Sierra Leone (Mark, 2012). Whilst these kinds of practices have some negative points, such as causing a decline in local garment production (Mark, 2012), the real problems seem to appear when an item’s use-value is changed, i.e. when clothing or computers are destroyed for some other use. This article concentrates explicitly on e-waste situations, an ever-growing area which will require most regulation in the future with the speed at which technology becomes obsolete. I will try to question whether our apparently lifted taboos (in the Douglas 1966, ‘matter out of place’ sense) with regards to waste, in recognition of the responsibilities we have towards our environment and the exchange value in the re-commodification of pre-owned goods, have diminished in a socially responsible way, concluding that in this context we really must take more care over who’s ‘treasure’ our trash will be.
With increased global mobility for those living in the richer countries of the world, electronic technology such as mobile phones and laptops have become materially synonymous with the comforts of home through constant cycles of personal use (Miller, 2008:68, Parsons, 2008:390) and the task of holding the contents of our entire lives. Our abilities to inhabit and form attachments to this kind of technology are similar to that of clothing (Norris, 2004:63), however unlike clothing one can simply wipe all of one’s personal data off a device in order to dump it for the next fashionable or superior product, perhaps taking less care over their safe keeping or sometimes no longer even waiting for products to become “useless and unwanted” (Douny, 2007:313) before we define them as waste. A rise in companies that will recycle such products for domestic and commercial purposes makes consumers and businesses feel like they are acting ethically, however a lack of information on what really happens to the recycled products means that the ‘treasure’ you may have received in exchanging your unwanted electronic waste might be anything but ethical. Reno’s ethnography of scavenging and waste management in Toronto describes ways in which people can overcome the stigma of waste by extracting value in terms of informal income and enjoyment, whether it be through collecting, consumption, or the thrill of illicit time-wasting on the job, “The social and moral entailments of waste multiply… demonstrating that waste is not fixed according to negative valuations, but open to varied forms of expression and entanglement.” (2009:43). Whilst this kind of transcendence of waste stigma might be a healthy and positive step in a formally managed plant with proper health and safety compliance, the lack of stigma attached to waste scavenging in marginal communities of countries with high rates of poverty is incredibly destructive.
Take the example of Agbogbloshie in Ghana, as captured in the photography of Pieter Hugo (2011, see photographs above). Obsolete technology is regularly shipped from richer countries to poorer countries, under the guise of bridging the “digital divide” (Hugo, 2012), as the technology is only supposed to be allowed through customs if they are in working condition and thus can be sold on for second-hand use (definitely in the EU at least, not all countries regulate their e-waste trail as thoroughly yet). This attempt to create jobs and balance out technological inequalities is tarnished by a thriving black market in which items that are unable to be fixed or used are still transported, meaning that the items are deposited in dumps where some of the poorest of humanity scavenge for waste that can be burned down for its precious metals. The burning doesn’t take place under any kind of health and safety compliance and is completely unmanaged, just taking place out in the open, so hazardous chemicals such as “…high concentrations of lead, mercury, thallium, hydrogen cyanide and PVC” (Hugo, 2012) ruin the surrounding environment and the health of the scavengers. Whilst it is true that this practice provides an informal economy where there are few other jobs, the price paid in terms of health and environmental degradation is astronomical. One has to wonder whether it is singularly the desperation of poverty that pushes the scavengers of Agbogbloshie to engage in harming themselves and their local environment, or whether a form of “social contagion, in which the negative qualities of garbage are transmitted” (Drackner, 2005:175) can also be blamed for affecting senses of self and community worth.
Whilst the UK has started to encourage the growth of British technological waste recycling or refurbishment firms, the reasoning seems to be more about making sure the economic advantages stay within the country rather than losing out to China or the Democratic Republic of Congo (Harvey, 2012), and not about taking responsibility for how our waste is dealt with when it leaves our shores. If we take the stance that shipping our waste abroad can have positives in creating jobs so that those living in poverty can take some ownership of their lives, would we be doing them a disservice by retaining the work here? In the age of globalisation recycling is one of the fastest growing industries in the worldwide free market, and as such waste management will be tendered to whoever can give the best price. Whilst it may be improper to try and impose regulations on countries that may not have a strong enough infrastructure to absorb any of the associated costs, we also cannot stand by and watch as the health and environment of marginalised communities are decimated by the poisonous products of our own waste. Whilst Britain does have regulations regarding these issues, and we enforce them better than some countries (McClatchy newspapers, 2008), it is not good enough to quietly watch as other economic giants exploit those in need. As the Environment Investigation Agency and a BBC Panorama documentary found last year, we do not have as complete a hold on the matter as our stricter regulations would suggest, “…British e-waste is regularly diverted from local authority sites into the black market” (Wasley, 2011), so perhaps we must fully tackle the problem domestically before we can hope to make progress internationally.
So how can anthropology help? Greenpeace recommends (Watts, 2007) that perhaps one answer may be to make more of an effort in our own country to encourage more localised and socially aware schemes for recycling and value extraction. Sadly if it is not profitable enough then this could be unsustainable, however anthropologists could certainly help with localised research studies into how such schemes could affect communities socially. One could go down the route of advocacy or activism (see Fortun 1998 and Scheper-Hughes 1995 respectively), however I personally prefer the material culture methods of tracing the socio-economic potentialities and lifespan of waste, the “material transformations and flows of materials” (www.thewasteoftheworld.org, 2009), though this research is incomplete and as such yet to present its value conclusively. These methods may be able to provide a more objective, uncompromised breadth of research that will be more likely to attract the attention of those with the power to affect real and lasting change in this area. By researching whether waste management firms adhere to the right standards before depositing our trash with them, we can all make a small start towards ethically turning our trash into someone’s treasure.
From 18~22/1/12, I had the pleasure of working with Everything Must Go! The installation process went on from the 18th until the 20th of January. INSTALLATION: Myself and David were in charge of painting the yarn holders one fine, chilly morning…