Globally, we produce between 40 and 50 million tons of electronics waste each year. Commonly known as e-waste, only 20 percent of this rubbish is properly recycled or disposed of, with the remaining 80 percent becoming part of an illegal, transboundary trade. Dealers take advantage of a loophole in the definition of junk by labelling e-waste as second-hand goods, creating a grey area in which objects are exported as usable stock but are imported as refuse. Problematic detritus is removed from one country and discarded in another. E-waste dumps exist within a cycle of exploitation and pollution…
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The Transboundary Loophole

Noud Sleumer

Globally, we produce between 40 and 50 million tons of electronics waste each year. Commonly known as e-waste, only 20 percent of this rubbish is properly recycled or disposed of, with the remaining 80 percent becoming part of an illegal, transboundary trade. Dealers take advantage of a loophole in the definition of junk by labelling e-waste as second-hand goods, creating a grey area in which objects are exported as usable stock but are imported as refuse. Problematic detritus is removed from one country and discarded in another. E-waste dumps exist within a cycle of exploitation and pollution, but the import of e-waste also creates new industries and opportunities. This informal system produces tangible, evolving infrastructures of jobs, products and services.

Using satellite images, Noud Sleumer creates an open atlas of independent E-waste sites. Site-specific narratives are represented by symbolic objects printed on a series of postcards, linking an illicit global market to its localised impacts. Combined, they depict a global network where abuse goes hand-in-glove with development, building a narrative of global urgency.

Credits

Map data: Google Earth, DigitalGlobe, CNES / Airbus, Maxar Technologies

References

Agbogbloshie Makerspace, “Agbogbloshie recycling and maker ecosystem,” GoogleMaps. Link

Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and Their Disposal (Basel: United Nations, 1989). Link

C.P. Baldé, F. Wang, R. Kuehr, Transboundary movements of used and waste electronic and electrical equipment (Bonn: United Nations University-ViE SCYCLE, 2016). Link

C.P. Baldé et al., The Global E-waste Monitor 2017: Quantities, Flows, and Resources, United Nations University (Bonn: United Nations University-ViE SCYCLE, 2017). Link

Center for International Development, “The Globe of Economic Complexity,” Harvard University. Link

Djahane Salehabadi, Transboundary Movements of Discarded Electrical and Electronic Equipment (Green paper, United Nations University/Solving the E-Waste Problem, 2013). Link

“E-waste,” Environmental Justice Atlas. Link

Growth Lab, “Atlas of Economic Complexity,” Harvard University. Link

Josh Lepawsky, “What E-Waste Journalism Gets Wrong,” MIT Press Reader, March 20, 2020. Link

Josh Lepawsky, “The changing geography of global trade in electronic discards: time to rethink the e-waste problem,” The Geographical Journal 181, no. 2 (June 2015): 147–159. Link

Juan Wang, “Transboundary Shipment of E-Waste” (Master’s thesis, TU Delft, 2009). Link

Kristof Geeraerts, Andrea Illes, and Jean-Pierre Schweizer, Illegal shipment of e-waste from the EU: A case study on illegal e-waste export from the EU to China (London: IEEP, 2015). Link

Oliver Whitla, Ruediger Kuehr, and Patrick Wäger, International policy response towards potential supply and demand distortions of scarce metals (Green paper, United Nations University/Solving the E-Waste Problem, 2012). Link

One Global Definition of E-Waste (White paper, United Nations University/Solving the E-Waste Problem, 2014). Link

Perrine Chancerel and Karsten Schischke, Worldwide Impacts of Substance Restrictions of ICT Equipment (Green paper, United Nations University/Solving the E-Waste Problem, 2011). Link

Secretariat of the Basel Convention, Where are WEee in Africa? Findings From the Basel Convention e-waste aFriCa Programme (Châtelaine: United Nations Environment Programme, 2011). Link

Senseable City Lab, “Monitour: E-Trash Transparency project,” MIT. Link

Senseable City Lab, “Monitour: How does e-waste travel across the world after disposal?” MIT. Link

Siddharth Prakash and Andreas Manhart, Socio-economic assessment and feasibility study on sustainable e-waste management in Ghana (Freiburg: Öko-Institut e.V., 2010). Link

Bio

Noud Sleumer is a conceptual designer whose work explores global systems of production and processing. His research focuses on the lifecycles of consumer electronic products, tracing the supply chains from resource to production and from points of sale to final processing. Sleumer’s practice provides insights not just into our everyday objects, but the systems, infrastructures and people who support them too.

Contacts

noudsleumer.com Link

@noudsleumer Link