John-Michael Davis


Office: CHaT Lab – CS portable 1017
Telephone: (709) 864-2966
Fax: (709) 864- 3119



Dr. Josh Lepawsky
Dr. Yaakov Garb



Thesis Title


Research Description

Electronic waste (E-waste) is the fastest growing waste stream presenting complex disposal challenges due to its inherent components combining valuable metals and toxic substances. While the vast majority of electronics and electrical equipment are produced and consumed in developed market economies, many developed countries transfer much and at times most of their e-waste to developing countries through informal (indeed, illegal) channels, avoiding expensive disposal fees while allowing a profit. Many marginalized populations in developing countries have made entire industries from what has been coined ‘urban mining’: the collection and dismantling of products and waste to extract the inherent valuable metals. These informal industries trade an immediate and much needed source of income for the creation of destructive and long-lasting environmental and health damages due to the unregulated methods of extraction which often include acid leaching processes, open burning, unregulated landfilling among other damaging processes. Thus, the appeal and feasibility of profitable e-waste recycling businesses in developing countries has turned e-waste into a double-edged sword. Valuable materials can be recovered economically, saving natural resources in the process, and providing local incomes; however, when e-waste is not processed properly, the risk of releasing hazardous substances into the environment becomes intolerably high.

In much of the early literature on the topic, the informal e-waste economy in developing countries was framed as a hindrance to development and was judged to be an anomalous or transient phenomenon that was (or should be) on the way out. However, there has been a recent emergence of research targeting initiatives that formalize recycling industries, highlighting the economic importance of recycling e-waste in these marginalized populations as well as utilizing the skills that informal e-waste recyclers possess.

The main research question driving my work is as follows: What are the practical, social, political, economic, development and ethical implications embedded in a proposed “fair trade” e-waste transfer between high income populations and low-income/marginalized populations? This broad question will be addressed through ongoing research in two case studies occurring in two very different regions, one in which a very extensive cross-border flow needs reform to be less damaging and sustainable, and the second in which no cross-border flow exists, but has potential for development of a sustainable novel from the start. In both cases, I will be adopting a participant-observer stance, in which I study the dynamics and dilemmas related to my research question by closely following, and, in some cases, participating in, interventions toward improvement.

The first case study is the transboundary e-waste trade between Israel and Palestine, which is a longstanding and important source of livelihood in a region I have studied over recent years, but, also, has had considerable environmental and health costs, with the tension between livelihoods and impacts now reaching a breaking point. Building on work done as part of my masters thesis, I will explore different top-down and bottom-up approaches towards formalizing the industry and the dilemmas and dynamics of this transformation.

The second case study in El Salvador, where no transboundary e-waste trade exists, will explore the feasibility of creating a new formal and regulated e-waste trade from a North American country to a developing country, which has the potential to produce a win-win scenario by generating employment in El Salvador, and helping developed countries by providing an economical option to recycle their e-waste. The many ethical, political and social aspects along with the practicalities of the creation of such an industry will be addressed to determine the implications of developing a “fair e-waste trade”.

Research Interests

  • Sustainable development in developing countries
  • Informal economies and their interactions with more formal economic and regulatory structures
  • Community development
  • Transboundary resource management and economic processes
  • Locally accepted WASH applications
  • GIS applications for research and community participation


Department of Geography

230 Elizabeth Ave

St. John's, NL A1B 3X9 CANADA

Tel: (709) 864-2530

Fax: (709) 864-2552