(In) formality in E-waste Movement and Management in the Global Economy

  • Somjita Laha

Student thesis: Phd


This thesis unpacks the dynamic nature and architecture of the global e-waste (electronic and electrical waste) recycling network. It analyses the functions of formal (guided by regulatory apparatus) and informal sectors (usually outside the regulatory orbit) involved in waste production and processing and their structural inter-linkages to situate the process and practise of informality in e-waste in the realm of formal capitalist economy. Additionally, it investigates the impact of regulatory interventions on the waste network and the actors therein. It focuses on the spatiality of waste treatment where the narrative of the physical material starts in the formal sector of electronics manufacturing and consumption and travels along quasi-legal channels of e-scrap trade and traffic to reach the informal sector (often in developing countries) for its end-of-life management. Till date, the systemic interconnections between formality and informality in waste processing operations have not been analysed in the waste scholarship. Despite critically reviewing the widespread presence and preponderance of informality with its definite characteristics, the literature has largely disregarded its relationship with formality and the broader lexicon of production and exchange. This research addresses this important omission in the literature and examines the drivers of informality and myriad formal-informal associations in e-waste transfer and treatment in the changing contours of the global economy. The following research question guides the structure and argument of this thesis.Main Research Question: What drives informality in e-waste movement and management?The research follows the trajectory of the international waste stream and examines how these path(way)s are embedded in the socio-economic processes of formality and informality. It uses the qualitative field work conducted in Netherlands, Belgium and India (Delhi) in 2011 and 2012. The fieldwork covers all the stakeholders engaged directly or indirectly in the e-waste network starting with the manufacturers, consumers to the traders, collectors, dismantlers, recyclers and second-hand sellers in both formal and informal sectors as well as the state and NGOs. The production, distribution and consumption of electronics, its waste and the recovered elements are not disjoint despite their apparent dispersion across geographical and political borders. Rather it is a functionally and organizationally inter-connected network characterised by a continuum of formal-informal material transfer, socio-economic transactions and financial arrangements between different players performing diverse functions. The analytical foundation of this study is laid by the Global Production Network (GPN) approach which follows the spatial e-waste flow in the post-consumption stage and locates the role and position of the various actors engaged in the process. It deconstructs the inter-connections between the formal and the informal actors by drawing on the rich formality-informality discourse. It uses the Global Value Chain (GVC) framework to specifically interrogate the vertical and horizontal governance patterns and power imbalances between the different players and additionally employs the idea of informal social networks from the industrial clusters literature to understand the ties of family, kinship and community between them. The study also engages with the diverse (re)valuations of e-waste and the (re)creation of secondary products that are used for further consumption and production. The value generated, circulated and captured in the waste recycling stream by the participating actors is understood using the Marxian exposition of circuits of capital. The e-waste network is institutionally embedded in particular geographical settings, socio-cultural milieus and regulatory framework leading to spatially differential comprehensions and treatment of e-waste. The roles of the regulatory and civic initiati
Date of Award1 Aug 2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorKhalid Nadvi (Supervisor) & Philip Woodhouse (Supervisor)

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