The Toil of Waste: Wasting and Redemption in the Global E-Waste Economy

Burning handheld drill motors to ease copper extraction. Bholakpur, Hyderabad, India. August 2018. Photo by author.

Editorial Note: This post is part of our series highlighting the work of the Anthropology and Environment Society’s 2020 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists. We asked them to outline the argument they made in their submission and to situate their work in relation to the field of environmental anthropology.

By Cynthia Morinville, University of Toronto §

Discard collection on bike. Accra, Ghana, July 2019. Photo by author.

ABSTRACT: Waste workers are often perceived as a population cast out of capitalism, and forced to eke out an existence by reclaiming materials from humanity’s refuse. Toiling daily, so they can eat, they are understood as barely surviving. This paper asks how we might conceptualize the role of waste workers in late capitalism beyond this rehearsed narrative of a destitute life. Drawing on ethnographic data collected from two e-waste recycling communities in Hyderabad and Accra, I document how informal workers recover valuable materials embedded deep within discarded electronic devices and make them available again for production cycles. In particular, I focus on the toil of e-waste workers to illustrate how their bodies and senses—touch, smell, sight and hearing—are enrolled in the production of knowledge necessary for the ordering and movement of discarded matter. Waste work, I contend, is rendered possible through workers’ exposure to and containment of toxic substances. Focusing on the process of wasting, the paper ultimately brings the joint exploitation of labour and nature under a unified frame of analysis to reveal how the production of value in global scrap economies hinges on the redemption of natures that are expelled out of capitalism. Redemption made possible through the devalued work and lives of expelled surplus populations.

One afternoon sitting in his scrap plastic shop, Noor told me that he is now able to recognize different types of plastic by simply looking at them. In the case of small or broken pieces, which are more difficult to tell apart, he can differentiate them by the smell they release when they are burned. He reached out for several pieces with one hand and with the other, grabbed a lighter out of his shirt pocket. He carefully went through the fragment to identify different types of plastic, holding up a flame to the edge of a piece and quickly putting it out before inhaling the fumes, then passing it on to me. Waiting for me to inhale, he then identified the items—Acrylic, nylon plastic, ABS, PVC, and so forth. Two of the plastics release a similar smell as they burn, but those ones can be told apart by rubbing the plastic with lighter fluid. One type—the one that makes up the contour frame of most desktop keyboards—yields under the solution and starts disintegrating and gets sticky, the other one—the type used for the keys of those keyboards—does not. Noor prefers using this petroleum solution to burning the pieces in order to differentiate plastics, feeling this method is less damaging to his health. Telling plastic apart, I later learned, can also be done by folding the piece or biting into it to measure its softness. Workers can also tap it on the ground to assess its bounce and sound.

In “The Toil of Waste: Wasting and Redemption in the Global E-Waste Economy,” I draw on seventeen months of ethnographic fieldwork in the communities of Bholakpur in Hyderabad, India and Agbogbloshie in Accra, Ghana to examine the work of e-waste workers. I document their self-acquired knowledge that makes waste work possible and at once perpetuates cycles of production and the depletion of the worker.

Dismantling servers. Agbogbloshie, Accra, Ghana, July 2019. Photo by author.

As I follow this work along recycling chains that are brought to life in Bholakpur and Agbogbloshie and extend far beyond across continents, I show how e-waste workers do much more than ensure their own reproduction. Their daily collection is also vital for the reproduction of the cities of Hyderabad and Accra. Their careful recovery work is equally crucial to ensure the renewal of nature in the form of raw materials such as copper, aluminum, brass, gold and silver. By showing the global reach of this labour, the paper exposes the role of waste workers for global circuits of production.

Yet, by centering the analysis of a globalized economy at the level of the human body, the paper tells a story of how waste work and the global circulation of materials such work enables rely on knowledges ceaselessly produced through the bodily senses of the worker. The paper chronicles the multiple ways in which waste work is degrading not only discursively but in material and corporeal ways, as illustrated by the story of Noor in the opening vignette. I bring Marxian literature on waste and value in conversation with scholarship on biopolitics and wasting to argue that e-waste workers produce capitalist value in two principal ways: First, through their skillful productive labour that creatively recovers raw materials from electronic detritus that are then reenrolled in capitalist circuits. Second, through their bodily containment of toxics and pollutants ultimately exposing workers to accelerated decay and premature death.

This work of containment is reminiscent of the work performed by polluted environments. By showing how a singular logic of wasting applies to both human life and non-human environments, the paper aims to open space to consider the continued degradation of nature across forms of lives in late capitalism. The intersection of multiple value regimes, I argue, produces bodies and environments as economic terrains that render them waste-able for the extraction of surplus value. Not only do the spaces and lives concerned with waste work directly result from cycles of expulsion, but their liminal character is precisely what allows for their continued exploitation. The devaluation of waste workers, their toil, and the spaces in which they work are thus both the consequence and condition for the continued extraction of value in waste economies.

“The Toil of Waste” is part of a larger project concerned with exploitation and the structures of opportunity in the global e-waste economy. My dissertation, “Mining the Waste Stream: Value and Disposability in the Informal E-Waste Economy,” is an exploration of how the invisibility of e-waste workers and their toil is naturally and culturally scripted, and an analysis of the structural role of this disposability for the circulation of waste and value. While the world is consumed with notions of circular economies that prioritize the movement of materials over the socially and economically mobile worker, my dissertation approaches the e-waste worker as one who is already closing the loop, and recasts the global e-waste economy as an extractive sector rather than a question of waste management.

Burning handheld drill motors to ease copper extraction. Bholakpur, Hyderabad, India. August 2018. Photo by author.

Cynthia Morinville is a PhD candidate in Geography at the University of Toronto. Her global ethnography of electronic waste recycling spans sites in India and Ghana and employs photography, interviews and observations to explore various vectors of the e-waste economy. These include the organization of formal and informal labor, the gendered divisions of labor, the articulation of e-waste processing with social reproduction and the absorption of waste in the body. Her work has appeared in journals such as Capitalism, Nature, Socialism, the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, Geoforum and Water Alternatives. Her research is funded by the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Foundation, the International Development Research Centre, and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.

This post is part of our series, 2020 Roy A. Rappaport Prize Finalists.