In her recently published Solving the E-waste Problem (StEP) initiative Green Paper titled “Transboundary Movements of Discarded Electrical and Electronic Equipment”, Djahane Salehabadi sheds light on the nature of transboundary e-waste flows and highlights key considerations and challenges related to national and international e-waste policy.
The Green Paper — an output from the collaborative StEP Initiative, hosted by the UNU Institute of Sustainability and Peace SCYCLE Operating Unit — explores the political and economic drivers of e-waste export, effectively debunking what Salehabadi sees as unproductive “dumping narratives”, wherein transboundary flows of e-waste are characterized in popular media and policy circles as wealthy countries simply dumping their discarded electrical and electronic equipment (and the toxic consequences of its disposal) on poor countries.
The report shows that the transboundary movement of discarded electrical and electronic equipment is far more complex and multi-directional, involving not simply a movement of waste, but a movement of value. This value takes the form of specialized handling services and goods such as secondary materials, spare parts and reusable goods. It is this value that serves as one of the primary drivers of e-waste export.
The story of transboundary movements thus is not simply one of North-to-South or rich-to-poor dumping, but a dynamic story that involves a movement of value and risk between a wide array of actors in different countries who experience highly unequal economic benefits and social, health and environmental consequences. Nevertheless, argues Salehabadi, the people and environments of the global South continue to suffer a disproportionate share of the social, health and environmental costs of e-waste processing and disposal, while reaping relatively few of the benefits.
The report also addresses significant policy implications, including the loopholes created by the inconsistent definitions and classifications of e-waste used by national and regional governing bodies, as well as shortcomings in monitoring and enforcement. Given the highly uneven political–economic international landscape, the relative ease in exploiting the inconsistencies in policy and enforcement, and the considerable value present in e-waste, a total ban on export simply will not work. Furthermore, domestic e-waste policies alone are incapable of effectively regulating transboundary flows of e-waste and e-scrap.
Using the case of Germany’s domestic e-waste policies as an example, Salehabadi demonstrates that “the tightening of domestic environmental waste handling regulations, such as the introduction of the ElektroG and the German Landfill Ordinance… can result in the export of the problem to the global South. In other words, e-waste, like other unwanted by-products of Germans’ affluent, high-tech lifestyles, flows to places of least resistance. Export, in turn, often results in the net worsening of the global environmental impact [of e-waste] since the importing countries often lack the capacity to handle these materials in an environmentally and socially sound manner intended by the regulations in Germany”.
Salehabadi concludes that domestic policies and other policies focusing solely on closing the loopholes through which e-waste flows “appear doomed to limited effectiveness, at best.”
This StEP Green Paper highlights the need for e-waste policies that treat discarded electrical and electronic equipment not simply as valueless waste, but as a source of both value and risk to many stakeholders along its transboundary journey from the global North to the global South. While this report stops short of prescribing specific policy solutions, its insights into the loopholes and drivers of transboundary e-waste flows provide the foundation for innovative policy prescriptions that will be published in an upcoming StEP White Paper.