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Geography professor digs deeply into e-waste

Dr. Josh Lepawsky has received a substantial SSHRC grant for his work on e-waste.

By Janet Harron

The old adage that one man’s trash is another man’s treasure is getting a new spin as a result of ongoing research in the Faculty of Arts.

The Department of Geography’s Dr. Josh Lepawsky was recently awarded a Canadian Environmental Research Grant by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada for his project Blurred Borders: Mapping Canada’s Role in the International Trade and Traffic of Electronic Waste.

The grant of $248,000 over three years will fund fieldwork for himself and his graduate students in Singapore, Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Nairobi (Kenya).

Much of Canada’s electronic waste ends up in developing countries where working machines and parts are re-invented, sometimes re-configured, while plastics and aluminum are melted down and used in new products. The environmental and health effects of this phenomenon are well documented but there is another side to the story.

As Dr. Lepawsky explains, these kinds of materials, although highly toxic, are crucial for the survival of domestic industries in countries such as Kenya and Bangladesh, and are a significant source of employment. The establishment of international conventions to halt such trade results in a tangle of issues and questions that Dr. Lepawsky hopes to answer in his research.

Primarily he is concerned with how materials designated as waste in one place become sources of value elsewhere.

“Essentially I am looking at how a material thing switches in and out of a category depending on where it is and who is involved with it,” says Dr. Lepawsky. “Things [that] we take for granted as just ‘normal’ and ‘there’ are actually incredibly complex social constructs.”

Although waste itself falls under provincial jurisdiction in Canada, there are federal regulations over the import and export of hazardous materials. Canada is a signatory to international conventions that ban exporting such materials as e-waste. However, bilateral trade agreements do allow shipment of such materials to the United States which in turn acts as a gateway to developing countries.

Criminal Intelligence Service Canada (CISC) names e-waste as an important revenue stream for organized crime. As part of his project Dr. Lepawsky hopes to examine closed case files to determine generic patterns detailing what criminal organizations are involved and what international connections they are using.

There is currently no way of knowing exactly how much and what kind of e-waste is exported from Canada because of the way in which trade data is collected. But there is no such grey area in terms of its economic benefits to developing countries. In some cases, Dr. Lepawsky explains, those selling the recycled raw materials are enjoying profit margins approaching 300 percent whereas the original manufacture of a computer monitor might have made a profit margin of three to five percent.

“This is exactly why this research is so important – separating the economic from the moral is not a realistic description or assessment of the actual situation on the ground,” says Dr. Lepawsky. “In purely economic terms the recycling of e-waste works but we have to consider the consequences of the atrocious health and environmental conditions as well.”