E-waste in China
Photo Source: Greenpeace

Demanufacturing is the process of disassembling, recycling, remanufacturing, or refurbishing outdated industrial and consumer products, particularly electronics (i.e. e-waste management, asset recovery, or urban mining) but also including activities such as shipbreaking, automobile shredding, devulcanization of rubber tires, etc. The tail end of the capitalist industrial production process was traditionally relegated to developing countries in Asia, Latin America, and Africa as part of a broader ruthless and neo-racist practice of relocating polluting industries and processes in the periphery and semi-periphery. But demanufacturing firms are beginning to emerge in advanced industrial countries as a mechanism to ensure data security for e-waste, comply with environmental legislation/emerging global norms and conventions on toxic waste, make landfills more “efficient”, as well as to generate employment and profit from the re-use of lucrative materials.

The problem of e-waste is obviously created by the failure of capitalist industrial production processes to incentivize green designs and to “internalize” post-consumption. While there have been some voluntary and state-led initiatives to push industries to design green by using the concept of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) for the End-of-Life (EOL) stage of a product, the manufacturing industry in sectors like telecommunications and personal computing seem to have increasingly moved toward planned obsolescence with narrower and narrower time horizons (i.e. the iFad syndrome). Nevertheless, even if green design is still a dream in some sectors, the tide is turning toward more responsible demanufacturing in most of the world with a few exceptions. Only Afghanistan, Haiti, and the United States have yet to ratify the 1992 Basel Convention on the Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal. The US, Canada, and Japan still object to particular provisions of the convention which restrict the export of toxic materials from developed to less developed countries. The US also continues to use prison labor to demanufacture e-waste in order to avoid more restrictive labor protections afforded to the general workforce. Canada has ratified the Basel Convention but it uses dubious tactics to comply. (Canada’s questionable behavior on this issue is actually not too surprising — as those of us who live near mega-landfills in the US know — our friends to the north are more than willing to export their sludge to the US in order to make their own country appear “green” while harming their neighbor’s environment.) The domestic environmental lobby in the US, Canada, and Japan will need to be energized on this issue to compel adherence to the international convention. Meanwhile, the EU has moved toward the adoption of a complete ban on the export of toxic materials to developing countries.

While preventing the export of toxic e-waste to LDCs is laudable given the enormous health and environmental impacts and the incapacity of many of those states to enforce environmental regulations, there is still a need to share best industry practices, technology, and equipment in the demanufacturing sector with LDCs as they attempt to deal with their own share of e-waste. India, for example, generates approximately 800,000 tons of e-waste per year. Otherwise, the environmental movement against e-waste becomes little more than an attempt to use legislation to create/protect a new industry in the OECD countries without regard for a comprehensive global solution. The Preamble and Articles 10 and 14 of the Basel Convention do recognize the need for establishing regional and sub-regional technology transfer centers for the management and minimization of hazardous waste, but the obligation is completely voluntary on signatory countries.

Fulfilling the voluntary obligation to share technology on waste management will be rather difficult since demanufacturing is emerging as a competitive for-profit industry in OECD countries. One solution may be to encourage FDI in this sector as some Japanese demanufacturers, with assistance from the Japanese Environment Ministry, are already trying to break into the emerging market recycling sector. Unfortunately, while some countries may welcome FDI in demanufacturing others will feel domestic pressure to limit competition. UN agencies (e.g. UNESCAP’s Asia Pacific Center for Transfer of Technology) may be able to facilitate some technology transfer. Ultimately, however, I think non-governmental organizations and Western research universities — which are already established sites of international technology and norm transfer — will need to play a pivotal role in creating and disseminating techniques and norms. Thus, the first step is to introduce the concepts associated with demanufacturing in the university curriculum from economics and international relations to chemistry and biology…

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