Dumping on the world: e-waste 2.0

E-Waste is the new emerging pathology of the ecosystem, born during the current historic period of capitalist production.

Giorgio Griziotti Gianluca Giannelli
9 October 2013

Nicaraguan garbage recollectors work in the garbage dump La Chureca, Managua, Nicaragua. Demotix/Jan Sochor. All rights reserved.

In the history of the subjection and exploitation of the planet’s resources, the human species has always produced scrapheaps and waste as a side effect of its production and consumption activities. E-Waste is the new emerging pathology of the ecosystem, born during the current historic period of capitalist production.

Electrical and electronic waste (e-waste) is the major flow of waste in the world, growing faster than any other type of waste. With an annual volume that lies between 40 and 50 million tons, according to UNEP (United Nation Environment Program), the growing amount of e-waste could grow exponentially, as much as 500 times over the coming decade. Especially in countries like India, China and some African regions where the technology industry is growing fast. 

It is hazardous waste, containing dozens of substances dangerous to human health and the environment and it is hard to dispose of sustainably.  It needs a costly processing technique to make it recyclable. This is the reason why about 80% of the e-waste produced in developed countries (North America and Europe at the top of the list) is not disposed of in situ, but shipped, most of the time illegally, to developing countries on cargo ships where it is illegally disposed of.

The waste produced by man, first with the ‘industrial economy’, followed by the chemical, the petroleum and then the plastic, has never been capable of being  metabolized and recycled by the force of nature that regulates the vital dynamics of the planet.  But between them the ‘commercialization of everything’ process and capitalist valorization has been able to create a true “waste economy”. This extends the logic behind profit and exploitation even to those scrapheaps that it has produced, creating a never-ending cycle that profits from its own death. Like organic waste, which becomes organic matter and regenerates life during decomposition, capitalism uses the work of human beings to decompose waste produced by other humans in order to generate profit. 

No longer do worms and enzymes carry out the natural cycle of life and death, producing biochemical energy and fertilizing the land. Now men and women are forced to take apart inorganic carcasses in order to generate money for their survival and for other men’s profit.

The peculiar process of the functional diversification and specialization of the human species, brought about by the modern global organization of the capitalist system of production, commandeers from natural resources and the knowledge arising from traditional production techniques, whatever would have once been sufficient to sustain local populations. And it forces the population who is now deprived, to accept, as their only solution, a survival conditional upon operating a specific function within the division of labour of the world at large.

Old and new colonization’s processes produce old and new methods of specialization, based on ethnos and territory, giving life to generations of men and women condemned to carry out specific tasks. Men and women are “socially modified” to carry out a specific functional task that supports the entire system.

This too is what has happened to the “waste economy”, which, since its birth coincided with that of industrial capitalism, has gone through the kind of transformative changes that industrial capitalism itself has been undergoing. In the same way, ‘socially-modified’ men have been involved in transformations to adapt to the changing functional needs. Take those who worked to sort urban solid waste in the open-air dumpsters of western cities during the industrial age, or the metal digger, usually looking for copper, going through waste containers in contemporary post-industrial cities. In form and function, these figures reflect different historic settings of the capitalist system. Today, thanks to the diffusion of the information linked to communications technology, the men, women and children of African villages who “ decompose” big commercial ships beached after being left abandoned and adrift are more readily visible, like those who select urban solid waste in the open air rubbish tips in Madagascar, a sublime place transformed into one of the twenty-first century post-industrial world’s dumpsters.

The current phase of financial-biocognitive capitalism dictates the physiognomy of the present day version of the ‘waste economy’, accepting “e-waste” as both the matter and symbol of discontinuity. Through cognitive machines we have the production of new genres of consumerist individualities. Consumer objects, characterised symbolically as instruments of social emancipation during the Fordist era of mass production and consumption, have now been drained of their ability to give pleasure. To avoid cognitive machines becoming instruments recyclable through the independent production of multitudes, the objective of today’s capitalism is to create bio-cognitive individualities destined to produce and to consume information, signs and symbols during their biological existence, and transferring the true value of merchandise to such immaterial content.

Marx’s famous formula for the valorization of capital during the industrial and modernization era, "M-C-M+" today becomes "M-I-M+" where I is the information that is continuously produced and consumed by individualized people who are the product of segmentation and biocognitive segregation.

To survive the drop in profits linked to computerized industrial production, cognitive capitalism needs a digitalization of the Ego induced to pursue continuous fulfilment through a kind of semiotic bulimia, from which it can extract the greater part of its value, reducing materiality to just a support mechanism, a vehicle, a means of supplying the “sign”, where the “sign” is the real object of individual pleasure. 

Signs and information linger everywhere and forever in hypermediated networks and individual minds. But the material support mechanisms remain limited and localized as a result of a necessarily highly achieved physical and technological obsolescence combined with their specific territorial location at the end of the employment cycle.  And it is in these resulting ‘spaces’ that we discover e-waste; a massacre of land and men, brought about by the neoliberal management of the waste of digital consumerism.

In such ‘spaces’, matter meets materiality, the misery and the stunted life conditions of men, women and children who survive through breaking this waste down and de-composing it. If in the solitude of life online there is a loss of contact with the materiality of technological objects, so we are stunned when we find those objects again in the form of a toxic dumpster together with the even more stunning gaze of young men and adolescents who are forced to live in that dumpster.

The vast quantity of e-waste sites in poor southern countries is readily explained by the millions of tons of electronic scraps poured out there. It is a flow that is on the increase thanks to the integration of networks and territories to PC and to television which has added a billion new mobile devices like smartphones, tablets, laptops etc. to the list. This cornucopia is incentivized by ICTii Corporations, which in their spasmodic search for infinite profit have implemented a programmed obsolescence of their products that is increasingly widespread and inescapable. 

In this regime of financialised governance, the laws that should prevent these kinds of human and ecological disasters are planned in a way that leaves plenty of scope for the interests of those who have economic power, public or private. This presents quite a dramatic contrast to the toughness applied to those laws made to keep migrant workers away from our post-industrial paradises. The ruling executive greatly prefers that they stay in their homes, and then transforms those homes into toxic rubbish dumps. 

Strengthening and enforcing insufficient international laws would thwart massive profits. Disposing of a PC by sending it to a dumpster in Africa costs $2, while it would cost $20 to sustainably recycle it. Those $18 are split between apparently respectable operators from the north and their equivalent mobsters from the south. The connivance and complementarity between lawful capital and capital linked to the Mafia in some countries of southern Europe, is reproduced on a world scale, in the peripheral regions of the world, where these forms of capital accumulation and mafia-like organizations represent an essential point of entry into the international division of labour. 

According to economists who are not subservient to this mainstream financial logic, “in the end, cognitive capital and capital linked to the mafia find their true unity in the innate opacity of financial markets where any distinction disappears”iii.

In developing countries the eco-mafia is taking charge of rare and non-renewable resources, and is contributing to the ecological crisis with e-waste. In both cases we are talking about the expropriation of the commons, both regarding the devastation of land and the exploitation that enslaves people to the precarious life conditions of those who work in such an inferno.

If we choose to look, we can see before us the tangible results of the brutal materialization of this division of labour in the global economy, wherein the financial oligarchy inherits as its share intellectual property, immaterial production or bio-hypermedia devices, while the multitudes of the “damnés de la terre”, get the enforced slavery of the technological dumpsters that invade their ecosystem, making it sterile and toxic.

E-waste terrains, 300 tons of radioactive water poured into Fukushima’s ocean every day, lands in decay ravaged by fracking (hydraulic fracturing) to extract oil and gas from shale: there is no let-up in the scars left by today’s capitalist model. Through the network, the dominant machine of economic rationale is accelerating the rhythm of destruction of our biosphere.

When will it stop? 


This article is translated from the Italian by Laura de Francesco



i M-C-M+ with this formula Marx describes advanced capitalism (in his time), where the money (M) is used to buy commodities (C) and then sold to make more money (M+). So the commodity is a means of increasing money.

ii Information, communication technologies

iii Capitalisme cognitif et capitalisme mafieux di DIDIER LEBERT e CARLO VERCELLONE





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