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Djahan Salehabadi, Cornell University, Dept. of Development Sociology

Second-hand Technologies or E-waste? The Composition of Germany’s Progressive Environmental Legislation

In a July 2007 press release, Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH), a non-profit environmental organization, accused Germany of being the “waste export world champion”. The press release referred to Germany’s most recent waste-management law, the Electrical and Electronic Equipment Act, which makes producers of electrical and electronic equipment financially responsible for disposing the products they sell in Germany. According to DUH, however, rather than stimulate environmentally sustainable production and waste minimization, the law has merely created an incentive to export e-waste to developing countries because, while the law raises the cost of domestic recycling, measures to prohibit export of toxic waste are inadequately enforced. Germany’s reputation for progressive laws governing waste, when coupled with its dubious distinction as “waste export world champion” evinces a critical paradox: Germany’s “green” laws are compounding and intensifying the negative social and environmental consequences of e-waste disposal; only the consequences are not felt in Germany. Instead, e-waste, transformed into a commodity, flows to countries in the global South that lack the technical, political, and economic capacity to safely handle and dispose of hazardous materials. In this study I ask three related questions: Under what conditions does e-waste become redefined as an export commodity? What are the implications of this discursive and material transformation for understanding the assumptions governing waste legislation in Germany? And finally, how does this transformative process reveal the limits and effects of national formulations of environmental policy in an uneven global economy? I propose to answer these questions through a combination of archival and ethnographic research. This dissertation project engages with recent debates within the social sciences on non-human agency as well as on the use of market-based instruments to support environmental sustainability.