A Reflection On Autoethnographic E-waste Musings


A couple of weeks ago I shared an autoethnographic post that detailed my initial thoughts and assumptions on the matter of e-waste. Since then I have given considerable thought to the topic and conducted some introductory research to help me better understand issues relating to e-waste. This follow-up post serves as a sort of reflection about my initial encounter. As was the case with the previous post, here I will employ autoethnographic methodology in order place myself squarely within the area of study.

I opened my previous account by noting that over the years I have routinely seen numerous electronic devices replaced by superior technology. My observation included a supposition that rapid advancements in technology is resulting in digital electronic devices becoming obsolete at an accelerated rate. After conducting some research, I have concluded that this assumption appears reasonable. The rates in which technology is being superseded can be explained by Gordon Moore, whose 1976 “Moore’s Law”correctly anticipated a doubling every year in the number of components per integrated circuit in digital electronic devices. Advancements in digital electronics are strongly linked to Moore’s law: quality-adjusted microprocessor prices, memory capacity, sensors and even the number and size of pixels in digital cameras. Moore’s law indicates to me that devices are rapidly becoming obsolete because every two years’ as new devices are becoming available that are twice as powerful. As a side note, it as interesting to find that obsolescence isn’t limited to hardware. Evidence of software obsolescence is also widespread. For example, an obsolescence analysis of a GPS radio for a U.S Army helicopter found that a hardware change that required revising even a single line of code would result in a $2.5 million expense before the helicopter could be deemed safe for flight.

Moore’s law does help me to confirm that devices are becoming obsolete and to conceptualise the frequently at which it occurs, however, it has not provided me with a clear understanding of what happens to technological devices once they are replaced. My own experiences with disposing of obsolete electronic devices are varied. As stated in my previous post, I purchase a new mobile phone approximately every two years — once the previous model becomes obsolete. My old phones are currently laying idol in a draw attached to my bedside table. Until I began researching this topic I had made no plans whatsoever to dispose of these devices, nor have I considered replacing or repurposing them. I also upgrade my computer every 2-3 years. Unlike my old phones, I have previously thrown my old laptops away in the garbage bin. Never have I considered where the computer ends up after I throw it in the bin. If I had to guess I would imagine they all ended up in landfills. This, of course, is just my personal experience with discarding electronics. The issue of where technology goes to die in a broader sense is a rather complicated and interesting reality. I have sourced research that confirms my assumption that a lot of it ends up in China. In fact, China is both the world’s largest exporter of electronic goods and importer of waste electronic equipment. It is estimated that approximately 70% of the world’s e-waste is sent to China. According to official statistics, more than 40 million tons of e-waste was imported to China in 2010, with an industrial output value of around 36.3 billion AUD. The largest of all e-waste sites is located in southeast of the country, in the village of Guiyu, in Guangdong Province.

E-waste deposit in Guiyu, China.

China, and more specifically the Guangdong province, can aptly be named the home of e-waste. Confirming this assumption has raised more questions within me. Why is all this waste being sent to China? Is this practice legal? What happens once devices result in China?  I looked up Guangdong province on Google Maps and immediately realised something surprising: I have been there before! When I was fifteen I visited Shenzhen, Guangdong, with a friend and his father who resides in Hong Kong. I remember walking the streets of Shenzhen with my friend and his Father Craig, who, after living in Hong Kong for over a decade, had a good understanding Chinese culture. This was ten years ago but my memory of that experience is vivid. I recall being shocked by the insane level of poverty that I witnessed as we wondered the streets on our first night in the city. Beggars lined the sidewalks throughout Shenzhen and I remember my heart sinking as we passed a beggar woman laying in the street with a newborn baby. I had never experienced this level of poverty in Australia and I found it very confronting. I wanted to give the beggar woman and her child some money, but Craig warned me against such a gesture. I couldn’t see the harm in trying to help this poor woman so ignored his advice and tossed some coins in a hat that was placed next to the woman and her child. We continued walking down the street and after a minute I turned around and saw something that I will never forget: A large group of around fifty people, closing in on me, begging for money. The feeling was tense and we were forced to rush away to escape the hoards of people. It was a frightening experience but nonetheless an interesting initiation to the reality of poverty in China.

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Guangdong province, China. Highlighted are the areas of Shenzhen and Guiyu. Image credit: Google Maps

My experience with visiting Shenzhen, coupled with what I have read about e-waste, leads me to assume that poverty is a reason that many of the world’s discarded electronic devices end up in China. This will require further investigation but I am now very interested in gearing this project specifically towards understanding more about the correlations between poverty the culture of e-waste in Guangdong province. I still intend to look into the processes of planned obsolescence, as I discussed in my previous post, but for now, I will be focusing primarily on e-waste in Guangdong.


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