Electronic goods are made of diverse components, including valuable metals and hazardous materials. Tens of millions of tons of electronic waste (e-waste) is produced annually across the globe, but only a small proportion of this e-waste is recycled. While the amount of e-waste continues to rise exponentially as use of electronics grows internationally, recycling costs prohibit widespread recycling in the developed nations of the world, such as the U.S. and Europe. As a result, a global e-waste industry has arisen in which waste is exported into parts of the world like China, India, and some African countries, where illegal dumping and informal recycling occur. Recycling practices in many countries involve the removal of valuable metals, but they employ practices harmful to people and ecosystems. South Africa is pursuing a relatively unexplored approach to e-waste: sustainable recycling. South Africa's e-waste goals are being most progressively advanced through a pilot program in Johannesburg that will charge recycling fees to consumers, with the fee being used to support waste processing enterprises. This doctoral dissertation research project will integrate transition management theory with political ecological perspectives in order to examine the power relations at play in the creation of this industry as well as the potential for this project to be scaled out to other contexts. The doctoral student will use a range of methods, including document analysis; in-depth interviews with stakeholders, such as e-waste processors, policy makers, non-governmental organization officials, and consumers; field observations of formal and informal recycling facilities; and participant observation in planning and strategizing meetings.

This project is motivated by the magnitude of the e-waste challenge, the relative impasse over the question of exportation, and the potential for South Africa to forge an innovative pathway for e-waste management. Project results can help inform policy makers about the environmental and ecological consequences of the recycling system as well as the factors in the broader landscape that must be influenced in order to facilitate a successful sociotechnical regime transition. Moreover, documenting the power relations shaping e-waste strategy development and project implementation can help remedy structural inequalities and empower stakeholders like community residents and consumers who may be absent from the decision-making process. As a Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Award, this award will provide support to enable a promising student to establish and strong independent research career.

National Science Foundation (NSF)
Division of Behavioral and Cognitive Sciences (BCS)
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Thomas J. Baerwald
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Clark University
United States
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