Mangling and promiscuity

Materialities of waste conversion in East Asia

Peter Wynn Kirby, Site, School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford [About | Email]

Volume 18, Issue 2 (Discussion paper 4 in 2018). First published in ejcjs on 8 September 2018.


Waste material endures in a remarkable variety of forms shaped by (or sometimes in defiance of) influential discourses like sustainability, “circular economy,” and industrial ecology. Through ethnographic portrayals of sites of intensive ruination and material conversion in Japan and China, this article recuperates promiscuity’s original lexicographic connotations of casual, undiscriminating, desultory engagement in order to scrutinise the ceaseless intimate relationality between and among such varied and mutable artifacts within human and nonhuman environments. In particular, the article highlights the promiscuous toxicity of material degradation—a feature of “vibrant” materiality neglected by “new materialist” geographers and others—in ravaged sites such as post-tsunami Japan and a much-discussed South China electronic-waste scavenging community, called Guiyu. (Electronic waste is also known as “e-waste” or WEEE [Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment]. E-waste conversion is widely described as “urban mining.”) In communicating the intimate promiscuity of e-waste artifacts as they both drive and transform such sites of intensive ruination and scavenging, this ethnographic account of electronic waste conversion offers an important opportunity to consider the “enmeshed processes” of objects and the apparatuses that both destroy and (re)produce them.

Keywords: e-waste, materialities, ethnography, China, Japan.

Introduction: Protean objects and leaky cycles

The Japanese Olympic Committee’s deliberations in 2016 over whether to fashion Olympic and Paralympic medals entirely out of gold, silver, and copper recovered from the nation’s “urban mine” of electronic waste might well have been more public relations exercise than credible policy shift for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games,1 but the debate touches on a serious and timely tangle of issues. The dramatic twenty-first century expansion of consumer electronics and other devices comprises a huge store of precious metals, plastics, rare-earth minerals, and so on when discarded, worth an estimated €48 billion in 2014 alone (Baldé et al. 2015: 9). At the same time, attempts to normalise waste processing frequently chafe against diverse notions of purity that can complicate attitudes to things made from scavenged materials. While e-waste conversion can be lucrative and (some maintain) eco-responsible (e.g., Minter 2013; Honda et al. 2016), not everyone is ready to accept that an Olympic gold medal—arguably the pinnacle of amateur sporting achievement and a metonym of cherished social values—can or indeed shouldbe fabricated out of material drawn from the waste heap.

In this and other ways, waste destabilizes, bringing both material and taxonomic leakage that perplexes communities and challenges mainstream ideas of order. Drawing on the misleading “end-of-life” rhetoric common in waste discourse, the shortened lifespan of consumer electronics and other manufactured products—truncated by design, by diminished memory/speed/capacity, or simply due to the vagaries of technophile fashion—is accompanied by what might be called their long “deathspan” or “afterlife” as discards (Appadurai 1996; Hetherington 2004), with waste plastics, for example, now believed to endure in diverse environments for thousands of years (Barnes et al 2009) and waste metals for far longer. Due to the potential value of its components when discarded, electronic waste (or “e-waste,” a.k.a. WEEE [waste electrical and electronic equipment]) represents a mutable waste stream, with determined scavenging2 operations extracting usable components for resale and diverse plastics and precious metals for recommoditisation. While e-waste is by no means unique in this regard (e.g., Zimring 2011; Gregson, Crang, et al 2010), the material iterations and degradation of such recyclable discards help elucidate important geographical dimensions of ruination, mutability, and harm in complex settings. Indeed, as this article shows, by conceiving of relational, processual, interpenetrating WEEE objects as always already disintegrated, geographers can gain vital insight into the dynamic (albeit toxic) potential of materiality, as well as glimpsing the seasoned perspective of those involved in operations of conversion.

In the rhetoric of “urban mining,” recycled metals and plastics extracted from e-waste are contrasted against so-called “virgin” materials, the latter term referring either to ore literally mined from the earth’s crust or, more figuratively, to plastic that is freshly produced without incorporating recycled materials. Invocations of this material “virginity”—product of invasive, penetrating, and appropriating technologies and processes redolent of traditional patriarchal control of female bodies that was common in Europe and North America when this mining term came into wider use from the 1800s (OED 1989)—invite a focus on the contrasting promiscuity of artifacts and materials as they iterate in human and non-human surroundings. Subverting the concept of material virginity to describe objects and materials as “promiscuous” represents an attempt—among others (e.g., Childers 2014; see also Childers, Rhee, and Daza 2013, 508)—to recuperate the term’s original lexicographic connotations of casual, undiscriminating, desultory engagement without being limited by its fin-de-siècle censorious sexual associations (OED 1989). Challenging normative, perjorative positionings of promiscuity as excessive, risky, and immoral, a novel focus on the promiscuity of things that respond to and engage with their surroundings—including resulting toxicity and ruination—can help reorient a field still overly committed to the notion of discrete objects, as I explain below. Importantly, the term retains associations of intimate contact, which helps emphasise the immediacy and tactility of physical engagement between figures both living and inanimate, even as they degrade. Clark and Hird (2014: 44) remind us that such promiscuity takes place on a teeming microbial level, blurring human and nonhuman, organic and synthetic, and subject and object in a rich, though largely unseen, “waste-bacterial conjunction.”

Taking up material conversions in illustrative East Asian fieldsites—the post-tsunami disaster zone and a Panasonic-run “recycling” facility in Japan, as well as a prominent scavenging community in Guangdong Province, China—the article ponders the trajectories of promiscuous objects through pollutant processes of waste scavenging and ruination in sites of undoing. Theorisations of materiality have a tendency toward unhelpful idealism and abstraction, but even a critic of such detachment (see Latour 2007) sees fit to use the term judiciously (e.g., Latour 2013: 31), as do I in these pages to reference dynamic material entities with pulsating human and nonhuman relations and effects. Geographical research, such as from so-called “new materialists” (e.g. Bennett 2010; Barad 2003; Coole and Frost 2010), engages with the vitality and agency of materials—yet the toxic ramifications of disarticulation and decay remain often elided from such geographical accounts of materialities. This work has been influential as a corrective and rallying cry in viewing the environment through the materialist prism of equitable relations between the human and non-human; yet Bennett’s argument (2010: 111-12) almost wilfully avoids discussion of environmental consequences of material vibrancy. While remaining cognisant of scavenging’s toxic dimensions, this article suggests that these protean, promiscuous objects, viewed as discrete material entities by most scholars (even those committed to a robust “metaphysics of objects” [Harman 2002; cf. Clark and Hird 2014]), would be better conceived of as emergent processes enmeshed not only in material change but in webs of human and nonhuman relation and obligation that influence their transformation. The project’s focus on electronics and on waste here proves fortuitous. WEEE’s relatively lucrative value as discards engenders sprawling scavenging apparatuses that foreground WEEE’s precarious, protean objecthood. The inevitable material degradation of successive conversions of scavenging, over time, illustrates the limits of recycling usually unacknowledged in circular-economy rhetoric. Indeed, such e-waste artifacts, mutable objects of fickle desire, invite scholars to reflect on the transient nature of human ownership and identification with the things around us in both industrialised and industrialising contexts. WEEE includes intimate things abruptly discarded. As such, promiscuous electronic waste offers an important ethnographic opportunity to consider how protean objects modulate in sites of intensive transformation and how matter moves in and out of particular configurations that we call things—viewed throughout an extended lifecycle here—that come from raw materials and return to undifferentiated streams of waste. Akin to viewing buildings and ruins as inevitable “rubble” (Gordillo, 2015), or “wish symbols” and commodities as already “crumbled” (Benjamin 2002 [1935]: 13), e-waste artifacts are but instantiations along sometimes convoluted material trajectories; such objects possess their ruined fate (and potential for new formations) in their very materiality, as I explain below.

Electronic discards comprise an emblematic waste avatar for geographers, given the vast distances that e-waste can travel, the diverse material conversions WEEE undergoes, and the emergent capitalist and cultural structures that influence waste work and reckonings of value. Waste scholarship generally—which has exhibited a mainstream robustness in recent decades in ironic contrast to the apparent squeamishness of some to its primary subject matter—has expanded since around the turn of the millennium, with the analytical prism of waste wielded to interpret such varied themes as environmental justice (Dillon, 2014; Anguelovski, 2016); constructionism (Bickerstaff and Walker, 2003); affective labour (Ureta, 2016; Strasser, 2000); the “residue” of diverse systems (Scanlan, 2005); urban history and rationalisation (Gandy, 1999; Melosi, 2000); global capitalism and recuperation (Gregson and Crang, 2010; Lepawsky 2014; Lepawsky and Mather 2011; Knapp, 2016); and waste as archaeology, archive, and/or forensic evidence (Rathje and Murphy, 2001; Yaeger, 2003; Reno 2012). Waste often represents what societies wish to hide, thereby melting into the background until its presence becomes obtrusive. If, as Mary Douglas argues, “dirt” represents “matter out of place” (Douglas 1966, 35), such problematic matter both “challenges and reaffirms a given cultural system” (Reno 2015, 558). Yet such systems rarely embrace the more radical, and subversive, corollary: just as everything becomes dust, everything has the potential to become waste. While waste practices may betray attempts to maintain material and taxonomic order amidst perplexing uncertainty, they unfold across dynamic sociocultural terrain. As such, “waste” as a category over time is both labile and constitutive; for instance, Scanlan (2005) shows how residues of “progress” perversely serve as the fundaments of exalted value, an extension of Michael Thompson’s exegesis of waste’s under-recognised but integral role in the formation and recuperation of value (Thompson 2017 [1979]).

Waste’s indeterminacy, its pervasiveness, its unsettling banality, its perplexing role as a quantity out of place—representing, for some, both disorder and an impediment to re-establishing smooth functioning of a system—have over the past decade undergone something of a transformation. In a range of recycling regimes, waste now represents a resource which can be input to produce value (Moore 2012; Reno 2015)—be it via commodities, energy production, or attempts to eliminate waste itself or offset the cost of waste-collection systems (e.g., Gregson and Crang 2015; Kirby 2011). The myriad transborder assemblages that transport, convert, and valuate e-waste both capture and intensify the human-geographical tension between WEEE’s dual readings as waste and resource. This beguiling, shapeshifting quality of e-waste as an analytical object emerges, for example, along the arc of Josh Lepawsky’s work. He argues, “[There] is a need to more carefully conceptualise the ‘transubstantiation’ of ‘waste’ electronics into ‘value’ through highly contingent processes linking different geographies” (Lepawsky and McNabb, 2010: 186); reframing e-waste beyond international “dumping” to consider the intricate traceries of reuse, repair, and recovery “would make it an issue about waste and discards, but also about value, resources, who has access to them, and under what conditions” (Lepawsky, 2014: 158).

Geographical work on WEEE has yet fully to respond to this call to arms. Social science scholarship on e-waste has mapped its uneven geographies and flows, its toxic chemical qualities, and the policy frameworks that regulate the WEEE trade (e.g., Hosoda 2007), building on the extensive overlapping work done by Nicky Gregson and colleagues, cited throughout, on geographies of scavenging and recuperation. More recent accounts, in addition to the above, range from Freyja Knapp’s insightful analysis of traditional extraction companies’ leveraging of above-ground “flexible mining” via WEEE conversion (2016) to delving into the distinctive sociocultural contexts of WEEE conversion and the economic incentives and valorisations that influence the e-waste trade (e.g., Tong et al 2015), notably via robust ethnographic interventions (e.g., Burrell 2012; Kirby and Lora-Wainwright 2015; Schulz 2015; Lora-Wainwright 2016). Usually characterised in terms of manifold cycles and circles (e.g., recycling, circular economy, renewables, and so on) that recall the lifecycle metaphor and fraught comparison with human mortality (Alexander and Reno 2012; Graeber 2012; see also Gregson et al 2015), WEEE conversion is far more desultory, makeshift, and untidy than such tropes would indicate. Banal, inert-seeming waste materials such as plastics, when entirely abandoned, can spawn new kinds of ecosystems through photodegradation, endocrine-disruption, microbial distortion, and toxic off-gassing (e.g., Davis 2016; Liboiron 2016). When mobilised by licit and illicit organised capital, waste materials enter violent processes of demanufacturing and recommoditisation in lopsided circuits that include marginal conversions and revalorisations in the Global South (and sometimes the Global North).

Despite these extensive apparatuses of conversion, the notion of distinct objects remains integral to the workings of capitalism (e.g., Graeber 2012: 279-280), however abstracted it may be from the lived, voluptuous world of promiscuous things. Throughout the Cartesian-influenced industrialised world, the illusion of empty space, isolated bodies, and durable materiality remains widespread (e.g., Weisman 2007; Kirby 2009), and communities tend to conceive of and experience the things around them as discrete entities, despite the clear, dynamic relational promiscuity of objects and the striking mutability of those described herein. This article attempts to offer a more nuanced view of protean, promiscuous objects, choosing the many-valenced conversions of e-waste in sites of prodigious undoing and remaking. Toxic operations of disarticulation often occur at a remove for much of the industrialised world. This process yields ethically questionable geographies of unequal exposure and harm already familiar in scholarship on WEEE (e.g., Lepawsky 2014; Kirby and Lora-Wainwright 2015). In presenting these East Asian fieldsites, the article urges a more clear-eyed approach to the promiscuous objects that enter the ambit of human and nonhuman relations. Like Japanese tsunami victims suddenly confronted with the vast material consequences of their ruined possessions, the industrialised world would do well to acknowledge the processes that push lucrative scavenging of material conversions of WEEE to sometimes remote, miasmatic sites and accept the ethical imperative to handle waste responsibly closer to home (along the lines of robust, though imperfect, national or supranational systems in the EU [Kama 2015] and Japan [Kirby, Lora-Wainwright, and Schulz, manuscript in progress]).

The Japan disaster zone research below builds on about 9 months of ethnographic fieldwork on material conversion since 2011 (including entry, described below, to a high-tech recycling facility by two team members—bolstered by visits to several such facilities in Asia and Europe and by the author’s preceding years of ethnographic research on Japanese waste practices). The Chinese data presented here derive from approximately three months of fieldwork in South China—first for a month in 2012 and with follow-up in 2013, 2014, and 2017—by members of a versatile ethnographic research team3 in and around an informal scavenging community named Guiyu that has been much-discussed (e.g. BAN 2002) and is difficult to study ethnographically. Below, I explore the 2011 tsunami in Tohoku, analysing ruination, disarticulation, and waste conversion as Japan struggled with colossal debris from its worst disaster since World War II.

After the flood: disaster, ruination, recuperation

A sudden cataclysm confronted a vast area of Japan with the material consequences of ruination that would normally have been handled at a comfortable remove. Due to low-lying coastal geography and fateful proximity to the seismic epicentre offshore, the record earthquake and tsunami that devastated extensive areas of eastern Japan on 11 March 2011 (hereinafter “3/11”) hit the Japanese city of Ishinomaki and environs badly. Nearly half the city became inundated by the tsunami, with over 3,000 fatalities and thousands more people missing. The crippled city was beset not only by such breathtaking tragedy but by destruction and debris. One out of three homes were damaged or destroyed, with tens of thousands of other buildings wrecked and vast expanses of the city lying under millions of tons of debris (Miyagi Prefecture 2014: 92). Nearly everyone I interviewed in the city knew someone who had died. These included family members or friends, some of whom at the time remained among the missing. Despite this strong undercurrent of grief and loss, by the time I arrived in Ishinomaki about three weeks after the tsunami, most residents were focused on more mundane issues like cleanup, repairs, insurance claims, and moving house. As respectful and sensitive as I attempted to be throughout, these were at once unfortunate and fortuitous conditions for ethnographic research.

Disasters, at their extreme, have the power to transform everyday, usable household possessions into heaps of waste precipitously. As earthquakes and tsunami convert homes into piles of debris, they alter the material trajectories of a host of objects that were once held as personal, even intimate. Many Japanese households in Ishinomaki (Miyagi Prefecture: population ca. 147,000) boasted a wide range of appliances and consumer electronics ranging from fax machines and washing machines to rice cookers, computers, and smartphones. The contents of these homes, when struck by the cataclysm of 3/11, tumbled into the WEEE waste stream.

In a zone so mired in rubble that routes became virtually impassable, disaster debris loomed as a thorny and conspicuous problem. In wide-ranging interviews and impromptu conversations with residents in April 2011, the topic of waste practices surfaced again and again, with informants describing cooperative efforts to move debris, and even bonfires, in Ishinomaki and elsewhere (e.g., Bird and Grossman 2011, A293), to reduce debris volumes. Yamada-san,4 a small business co-owner in his fifties, gave a small smile when I gently pressed him for details about particular forms of waste that were incinerated. “Sure, we also burned e-waste.” (He used the narrower term haikaden, or “waste home appliances/electronics,” but made it clear later that computers, printers, cameras, and other IT were very much included.) “We had to, there was so much gomi (waste) here, you wouldn’t have believed it.” He gestured high above his head with an outstretched hand, palm down, adding, “The plastic burned surprisingly well, actually!” This frank admission, however understandable in a disaster zone with crippled public services, was nevertheless jarring in a nation where quotidian recycling regulations and practice have been exacting for decades (e.g., Kirby 2011). Yamada-san and others described their surroundings as a pandemonium of material ruination. Unsegregated, heterogeneous domestic items spilled into the public domain, often removing all but vestigial sense of ownership. Ruined electronics mingled with building rubble and other splintered debris. Such disarray offered stark glimpses of truncated object trajectories discernible to the author after years of research in Japan. The toxic and aromatic tsunami sludge, which had congealed on both vertical and horizontal surfaces in numerous places, created a desultory landscape encrusted with whole and fragmented electronics and electrical gear: motor parts, sundered lengths of wiring and cables, broken plastic, cracked screens, worn printer cartridges, detached washing-machine lids and dishwasher doors, as well as forsaken remote controls. Such sedimentation was both psychic and material (Stoler 2013, 2, 10). The ruination and human tragedy in communities there morphed into an ongoing process of groping (tesaguri) through congealed loss toward a new socio-material formation—a “ruptured multiplicity… produced, destroyed, and remade” (Gordillo 2015, 2, 255).

Some of this WEEE belonged to Tetsu, a restaurant assistant manager in his late twenties, and his colleague and friend Chihiro. Both had managed to hold onto their smartphones during the tsunami—like many young Japanese non-professionals, they did not own computers and relied on smartphones for all manner of digital tasks—but they knew of plenty of others who had lost their phones or had them destroyed during the cataclysm. Loss of these promiscuous, intimate devices had exacerbated the sense of alienation. For example, survivors I interviewed had found it difficult to find others or transmit their location. They also felt out of sorts, lacking a familiar tech appendage.

Tetsu had struggled out of a car engulfed by roiling waters and managed to flee to higher ground, where he filmed the devastation. During a long conversation about the disaster, Tetsu used his surviving smartphone to show me satellite images of his grandparents’ devastated coastal village on the nearby Oshika Peninsula. He started laughing uncontrollably for nearly a minute while Chihiro and I exchanged worried glances and she put a hand on his shoulder. He finally managed, “There’s nothing there—there’s nothing left!” After some soothing words from both of us, Chihiro attempted some humour; we debated whether it was better to have one’s possessions largely cast out to sea, like the household flotsam of his grandparents (who had evacuated and survived), or to have them accreted to your surroundings in tsunami sludge, like in his neighbourhood. Tetsu replied, darkly, “It’s all gomi (waste) now…” He and Chihiro talked about how depressing it was to be surrounded by such material devastation, with many of their ruined possessions consigned to apparent oblivion; they were also concerned by rumours over toxicity (Bird and Grossman 2011, A293), though uncertain of its extent. When Tetsu perked up later, he added, presciently (gesturing around him), “Let’s make something new out of all this.”

Several months later, Ishinomaki embarked upon a program of staggering ambition, spearheaded and funded by the Miyagi Prefectural Government, that would have been unimaginable in the early aftermath of 3/11: to recycle virtually all of its massive amount of debris. The Ishinomaki Bloc (burokku) comprised a sizable area including Ishinomaki itself and several surrounding municipalities with over 14 million tons of debris which was to be collected, sorted, and processed in a dedicated conversion compound located on the coast (Miyagi Prefecture 2014). The material aftermath of disaster, hundreds of square kilometers of desultory ruins that in another system might have languished in piles (or pyres), was instead channelled into often radically different formations and trajectories.

This effort was the antithesis of Yamada-san’s indiscriminate bonfire incineration of undifferentiated debris in the disaster’s early days; nevertheless, Yamada, Tetsu, Chihiro, and many others were enthusiastic about the initiative when they heard about it. Even amid the splintered wooden structures, the pell-mell poles and wiring, the dune-like accumulations of rubble and toxic sludge, and the partially or totally collapsed ferro-concrete structures that shut down regular transport in the city, workers sorted a phantasmagoria of e-scrap, which was stored provisionally in 29 sites. In a sense—and across other debris categories, spanning from tsunami wood wreckage to waste chemical fertiliser and concrete—the cleanup effort was an exercise in rationalisation and containment. Out of the material chaos of the obliterated half of the city, order was leveraged across the cityscape by strict maintenance of material categories as much as by cleanup activities by rubber-booted locals and volunteers. This effort included a robust effort to separate and convert WEEE, e.g., consumer electronics, appliances, and other electrical equipment, transforming waste into “resources” (shigen). In Ishinomaki, 8,919 tons of televisions and appliances were collected and recycled, in addition to estimated thousands of tons of damaged computers, cameras, phones, and other small-scale electronic and electrical gadgets (for which detailed records were not kept [personal communication, Numata-san, Ishinomaki City Hall Waste Measures Division]). Such scavenging of disaster WEEE in a sense recalls Edensor’s work (2005) on dereliction and deterioration, where “the material status of objects in ruins is transient… in a state of becoming something else…. giving up their form and solidity over time” (Edensor 2005: 319), though over a radically shortened timeframe. One important element of the tsunami’s aftermath was that the accelerated ruination of these promiscuous objects occurred in close proximity. To those in the disaster zone, like Tetsu and Chihiro, who had once been insulated from severe deterioration of material things, the disarticulation of once intimate objects and familiar surroundings became all too visceral.

Yet the extreme promiscuity of ruined and discarded objects in Japan only becomes comprehensible through a closer scrutiny of the violence and intensity of infrastructures of conversion in the waste-scavenging sector. Below, I describe the formalised disarticulation and conversion of such WEEE in the apparatus of state-of-the-art recycling facilities in Japan—such operations, which also handled disaster waste, furnish important insights on objecthood, materiality, and promiscuity, as demonstrated below.

The shredder, the shreds, and what was shredded

High above the din of dismantling that filled the cavernous interior of Panasonic’s flagship PETEC5 e-waste processing facility, located near Osaka, Japan, a video monitor displayed the inner workings of one of the facility’s large crushing machines during ethnographic fieldwork in 2013. Not unlike stray morsels entering the maw of a voracious beast, unwanted appliances periodically tumbled down an intake chute and exploded upon impact with a gigantic, studded steel mangle that spun relentlessly below. In this way, a refrigerator the size of a Sumo wrestler disintegrated within a handful of seconds before our eyes, with twisted metal and plastic shrapnel below conveyed elsewhere for further processing. Nearby, employees wearing protective eyewear, helmets, masks, and gloves took the slow route, dismantling discarded monitors and air conditioners using an array of tools including screwdrivers, pliers and large mallets. Each workstation was nestled by bins to collect the different scavenged elements (including microchips and circuit boards) and stood near metal rollers or a wide automatic belt, slowly conveying components to other workstations or mechanised crushing and sorting machines.

Japan has had its share of pollutant facilities over the years (e.g., incinerators, petrochemical facilities, nuclear plants),6 and in showcasing PETEC here—for compelling reasons that will become clear below—I do not mean to suggest that Japan should be uncritically associated with clean and edifying high-tech or China with its obverse. Nevertheless, our sensitive noses quickly judged that emissions within the PETEC plant seemed much lower than in the scavenging operations we had encountered seven months earlier in Guiyu, in South China, where toxic fumes could make the air inside a family-run workshop dangerous. This relative lack of atmospheric pollutants derived from a number of countermeasures that also looked beyond the indoor air quality to consider macro-scale problems like ozone integrity. To this end, facility workers prepped the refrigerators, like the one above, for their violent path through the mangle. They drained the chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) coolant, a controlled gas, out of compressors using a dedicated machine and manually removed the electrical motor, plastic drawers, and so on for separate recovery. After shredding, the bits of insulating urethane foam, which contained CFCs, were extracted from the shrapnelised metal and plastic using air suction and were then processed to capture embedded gases.

Japan recycles most of the nearly one million tons of such WEEE appliances generated annually in PETEC-style facilities, an impressive figure, though with a problematic emphasis on disarticulation and relative disinterest in repair and reuse (Honda et al 2016, 84-89; Kirby, Lora-Wainwright, and Schulz, manuscript in progress). Fittingly, the business of high-tech “green” recycling is sometimes referred to as “the shredder economy” (Kalimo, Lifset et al 2012), which I invoke here, metonymically, as the mangle (pace Pickering 2010).7 The vast infrastructure of machines, transport logistics, and human labour that breaks down e-waste goes far beyond mere crushing or “shredding.” This enterprise of undoing (disassembly, dismantlement, demolition) brings not just destruction but reconstitution, with plastics and metals shrapnelised, separated, melted, compressed, snipped, cooled, crushed, and pelletised in a mutable purgatory of form.

This mechanised demanufacturing project, replicated throughout Japan and elsewhere in East Asia, is bound up in hyper-rationalist discourse on “resources”—what was once wasted is made productive (again). (Cf. roughly congruent discourses on “circular economy” in China [e.g., Zhu and Chertow 2016].) While the industrial ecology of precious metal recovery can be made both eco-responsible and profitable only at a relatively rarefied level of high-tech development, Japan has embraced the project of WEEE conversion as both an opportunity to recover “resources” (shigen) and to develop technological capital that can be used for both profit and regional influence (Sato 2007; Kirby and Lora-Wainwright 2015). Consecrated in the quasi-spiritual trope of circularity, scavengeables shunt between iterative lifecycles of products as they travel from treasured commodity to discard to “resource,” and sometimes around and back again.

The recycling industry focusses on materials, and yet the conversion trade has brought important changes to the design of products, with implications for objecthood and promiscuity. The Panasonic-led consortium of high-tech companies that includes PETEC competes with another Japan-based consortium, led by Mitsubishi, to squeeze the most efficiency out of their operation. So, for example, PETEC will strive to recycle ever more of the materials that constitute an appliance or television or computer. Among the visitors to PETEC are Panasonic engineers, who endeavour to incorporate the conversion trajectory of products into design so that as much of their line as workable can be converted economically. This subtly alters the horizon of home electronics, in that their fate (as preordained under Japanese law)8 forms part of their very objecthood—planned conversion to mitigate planned obsolescence. This design logic, the crafting of products with an eye toward their intended destruction, creates an important recursion of WEEE material trajectories. In the name of rationalisation and sustainability, Panasonic designers make choices—such as deciding to print the company logo directly onto an air-conditioner rather than attaching a separate embossed piece of different material—that create efficiencies and, in turn, alter object silhouettes and even the development of whole lines over years. Furthermore, while design is not predestination, the relatively high level of recycling compliance in Japan makes the path from sleek, bright electronics showrooms to the waste heap, and then to the mandated PETEC-like facility for planned dismantlement and conversion, an intriguing series of more or less foreseeable tableaux, with object avatars anticipated and enacted through design engineering. Despite a tendency in industrialised societies to fixate on the illusion of object durability (Weisman 2007; Author 2009), the processual object trajectory of Japanese electronics becomes more legible through an intermeshing of design, collection, and conversion, illustrating in turn the processual nature of objects generally. This sometimes almost epidemiological relationship between design, object, and fashion throughout the “social life of things” (Appadurai 1986)—including their conversion and refashioning of things—justifies the nuances of intimacy that radiate from the term “promiscuity"; such promiscuous things influence and interpenetrate with other things (not to mention bodies) throughout their journeys in and out of human lives.

Based on numerous visits to formal “recycling” facilities in East Asia, Europe, and North America, PETEC represents more or less the cutting edge of formal WEEE conversion in terms of technology and development of a skilled labour force—to the extent that despite the recent frosty relations between Japan and China, Chinese stakeholders have involved Panasonic in plans to develop flagship facilities in China.9 PETEC executives indicated that PETEC is therefore a rough approximation of what the Chinese formal waste apparatus might look like in the coming years. Significantly, the tight interdependence of design and object disarticulation found at PETEC was not possible for us to find or access in China. However desirable it might have been to conduct ethnographic research on similar facilities in China, the sensitive nature of the team’s research in Guiyu made it risky to seek such formal access, as illustrated in the next section.

Bits and blobs: Internalising externalities in South China

During ethnographic fieldwork in South China in September 2012, our research team10 stumbled upon a large, oblong plastic blob (figure 1) on a dusty side street in Guiyu, one of the planet’s most industrious e-waste smuggling and scavenging hotspots. At the time, Guiyu processed an estimated 20 million tons of WEEE each year (Chi et al. 2011) in approximately 5,000 family-run workshops, and plastic conversion had been a staple of waste work there for decades. The waist-high blob of dirty white plastic, resembling a desultory mass of congealed snowballs, stood in front of a shuttered workshop along a nearly deserted street. While we could not speak with the blob’s “creators,” an informant who had spent most of his life around Guiyu’s plastic-scavenging workshops insisted later that the grimy, twisted mass would not have been there if it had not represented some kind of value to its “owners” for future processing. This scavenging waste offered an unusual public glimpse of plastic conversion in a highly scrutiny-averse community; the blob stood as a strangely appropriate monument to the intensive waste work conducted in the region, also illustrating the extent to which Guiyu workshops are determined to squeeze value out of even the most unpromising-seeming residues in a highly adaptable scavenging zone.

Figure 1. A misshapen “blob” of waste plastic residues encountered in Guiyu, South China, September 2012

Kirby, Figure 1

Elements of Guiyu’s social/economic/political topography made ethnographic fieldwork difficult to conduct there. The town represented a notable example of China’s fiercely independent informal scavenging sector, an entrenched “waste regime” (Gille 2010)—or distinctive system of sociomaterial relations that produce waste—under pressure in recent years from the central government’s determined campaign to assert control over the informal waste economy. In essence, this presented a clash of two rival waste regimes. The model that the central government promotes—overwhelmingly directed toward PETEC-style shredding rather than Guiyu’s manual dismantlement, the latter of which includes profitable attention to identifying possible refurbishment opportunities—would allow far greater leverage from Beijing over the trade (see Schulz 2015 for an extended discussion of this dynamic in South China). Locals explained that an obscure phalanx of local officials, police, and gangs, aided by suspicious local bosses, maintained a tight grip on trade in the township. Residents claimed local officials were vested in the most toxic and lucrative scavenging work (Lora-Wainwright 2016); all these players acted as a bulwark against interference from outside interlopers, possibly including ourselves. When we encountered the plastic blob, our team had entered Guiyu unobtrusively in order to study scavenging workshops and interview workers in a nearby quarter of the media-averse town. We had already been interviewing locals and had begun working with collaborators, initially outside of the township, who subsequently drove us in their private cars—with local license plates, in order to avoid unwanted scrutiny—for olfactory tours of the community. Uncle Zhang let members of the team sample the odoriferous air in different precincts to compare between trade sectors. By far the most pollutant of these was metal processing, which I describe below.

On that sleepy holiday, the conversion node of Guiyu—an agglomeration of 28 villages in a rural area of Guangdong Province—seemed at times subdued, even humdrum. Yet due to Guiyu’s longstanding enthusiasm for the e-waste trade and the vast scale of its smuggling and conversion operations, pollutant emissions were often considerable, as Uncle Zhang explained. The town’s population of about 150,000 was comprised of approximately 50,000 residents—more than 80 percent of whom were embroiled in the e-waste sector—and as many as 100,000 migrant workers from elsewhere in China, who often performed the most parlous work (e.g., Chi et al. 2011, Huo 2007). Presaging China’s financial downturn in late 2015, operations in Guiyu slowed to a trickle from 2014; the account of scavenging here therefore refers exclusively to 2012-13 during our team’s ethnographic research before the slowdown.

In addition to brisk trade in waste plastic—some areas of town were literally festooned with signs seeking or advertising services for trading and processing resins of a detailed and specialist nature (e.g., PP, PS, ABS, etc.)—Guiyu also engaged in precious metal extraction. This work included “cooking” circuit boards and other components on hot surfaces in poorly ventilated spaces to de-solder elements, as well as “washing” components with potent acids (e.g., aqua regia, comprised mostly of hydrochloric acid) to extract such elements as gold, platinum, palladium, and beryllium. It almost goes without saying that the trade was so lucrative partly due to general neglect of occupational health concerns or environmental protections in the community—not unusual in China, it must be said (e.g., Economy 2005), though Guiyu enjoyed some notoriety within China for its toxic blight (Schulz 2015; Contributor 2016). Air within Guiyu workshops was frequently ripe with the cloying acrid-sweet stench of plastic processing, but atmospheric emissions from metal work were far more oppressive for residents. Informants described how thick, noxious smoke once billowed out of the “burn houses” used to melt down high-tech components, which long operated brazenly in daylight. With increased central governmental pressure on the informal scavenging sector—particularly on that of Guiyu, which has virtually become shorthand for the trade internationally (ibid) and therefore an embarrassment for the state—such operations have tended to cloak their activities under nightfall in remote locations (which I discuss further below).

Overwhelmingly, the mangle of Guiyu’s epic scale of promiscuous WEEE dematerialisation was powered by human labour. In contrast to the gleaming machines of PETEC and other formal facilities (including “circular economy industrial parks” in China), many thousands of scavengers dismantled appliances, computers, keyboards, phones, and so on, armed with hammers, screwdrivers, pliers, crowbars, and other basic tools. By hand, workers broke down e-waste and carefully separated what components could be reused and refurbished. This dimension of Guiyu’s business was far more lucrative and widespread than crude “shredding” and sorting of metals and plastics; some estimates place the value of such refurbishment and reuse at perhaps 80 percent of the business (Minter 2013). Working, retrievable microchips were traded and “reanimated” in new Chinese products for export and domestic consumption (Minter 2013). But while Guiyu’s human-labour-driven mangle had the capacity to extract valuable end-products like this for resale, the intensive disarticulation of components comprised an important portion of the trade there.

Due to the vast scale of the millions of tons of WEEE subject to scavenging, the informal sector of waste work developed a broad specialisation of tasks that took advantage of the large amount of human labour drawn to Guiyu. Whole villages were dedicated to sorting through cables, burning plastic off of wire, chopping plastic, or “cooking” circuit boards. Such labour necessitated transport between different parts of town as well as shipments into town, and Guiyu’s roads were thronged with all manner of vehicles bearing material that gave testament to the myriad stages of waste work there: whole groaning carts stacked meters high with bales of desktop keyboards; trucks delivering sizeable mounds of computer monitors and computer drives; large sacks of plastic pellets piled on makeshift flatbeds, either intended for buyers or for storage until the market shifted; unloaded circuit boards in heaps the size of haystacks, raked or shovelled out by labourers some of whom, appropriately, used to work as farmers before the “urban mining” boom. When a load of e-waste arrived in a container in Shenzhen, and was then delivered by truck to Guiyu, the load held clear value for those in the business. In this scavenging Mecca, at the heart of the “workshop to the world,”11 Chinese workers demanufactured the erstwhile consumer products that comprise WEEE, extracting material value out of the scratched, dented, promiscuous mass. The ecological consequences were grave; informants described how slurries from the acid baths were long simply decanted into the river (ergo its lifeless, tenebrous murk). Smouldering toxic ash might find its way into the river as well, or simply dumped wherever was expedient. Like the congealed plastic blob we encountered, nearly every object encountered in Guiyu workshops represented value for its owners (see also Lepawsky and Mather 2011, esp. 242-243). Nearly every component could be reduced to constituent parts and then traded with an industry, efficiency, and specialisation that rivalled even PETEC.

Due to official Chinese disdain for informal waste work, scavenging grew to constitute a murky, de facto grey-market sector, largely concentrated along China’s southeastern coastline (Tong and Wang 2012), into which Guiyu integrated. Yet locals and outsiders alike emphasised that Guiyu was distinctive not simply due to the vast scale of its scavenging but due to the kinship-based structure of its many workshops (Lora-Wainwright 2016)—this and the tight control of vested local elites meant that Guiyu remained resistant to outside influence, considered a trait of the fiercely independent Chaoshan region there. The literal meaning of the Chinese characters that constitute the town’s name, “precious island,” had long belied Guiyu’s relative poverty in productive, arable land and agricultural potential compared to elsewhere in the surrounding region. Informants explained that Guiyu’s comparatively poor fortunes in producing yield from the land propelled residents’ search for other forms of livelihood. Guiyu therefore became an early adopter of the waste-scavenging mode of production that has come to shape a large portion of economic activity in the Asian nation. The Chinese waste trade spans a wide range of material. China has transformed into a sprawling terrain of conversion generally, consuming everything from industrial detritus to coat hangers. Yet the high value of material contained within WEEE, along with its early abundance and the general lack of high-tech infrastructure needed for its conversion, allowed e-waste to become an important business opportunity well-suited to Guiyu.

Refurbishment is one remunerative form of waste work that often depends on recovery of reusable components. Manufacturing counterfeit products, from scratch, for sale in Guiyu would not only be prohibitively expensive but would run counter to the ethos of canny appropriation and reinvention that dominates the sector there. Above all, waste work in Guiyu must be profitable, as informants demonstrated, and due to intense competition, margins are often very slim. A workshop we studied run by a husband-and-wife team, Guo and Peng, was dedicated to taking scrap capacitors—purchased for between one and ten yuan—and converting them into shiny, new-looking pieces for resale. Guo, a slim, cold-eyed, no-nonsense man who spent two years in Shenzhen learning the ropes of e-waste processing, explained that the main money was made by traders; he estimated he and his wife normally made only about 10 percent profit on each component (Lora-Wainwright 2017). Most extracted capacitors arrived in comparatively crude form in the workshop, encrusted at their extremities with pieces of metal and wire, unusable microchips, and other detritus signalling their past aborted utility in televisions or PCs. Wife and supervisor Peng, a voluble and energetic young woman who was a nuptial transplant to Guiyu, had worked in the tourist industry elsewhere and was therefore uncharacteristically eager to show foreigners around her workshop. Under Peng’s vigilant supervision, migrant workers first stripped capacitors of their old covers, cleaned them, and tested the capacitors before two local teenagers melted the barnacled material off in a small pool of molten lead in a poorly ventilated upstairs room. The workshop, at first an apparent clutter of cardboard boxes and random floor scrap, was upon closer scrutiny tightly organised into material categories and workstations, all monitored via CCTV cameras (themselves likely produced with at least some scavenged material, like nearly all products for sale in China [e.g., Minter 2013]). The second floor was populated by several young locals Peng had taken under her wing. A fashionably dressed teenage boy (Zhao) from the molten lead operation would place the stripped and cleaned capacitors that had passed muster in racks for recharging. Two teenaged women from Guiyu then repackaged them with glossy mylar-like covers. They slipped the sleeve-like covers onto trays of the thick, cylinder-shaped casings, then sealed them on with a few seconds in what appeared to be a microwave oven, as well as brief use of hair driers for a final touch. The “new” capacitors would then be packed in pristine cardboard boxes for sale domestically. The operation was geared toward profitable refurbishment but still benefitted from the aggressive disarticulation of the mangle in Guiyu. For example, unusable capacitors were sold by weight to other entrepreneurs who would melt them down to extract aluminium. In this way, components that were flawed and irreparable quickly transformed, in the industrious scavenging regime of Guiyu, into raw material to be recommoditised for manufacturing. This process was discernible in highly toxic metal “washing” operations, which, by 2012, increased government scrutiny had pushed to the margins—in the mountains or beyond town limits, usually conducted under cover of night. Lindi, who specialised in scavenging CD drives, refused to work in metal scavenging for health reasons but pointed to its geographical expansion and continued relevance. “That smoke is very poisonous, but it is a big earner, everyone wants to do it.” Due to increased scrutiny, “these businesses are all hiding in the mountains and working at night. If you want to wash metals you call them. The minimum quantity is 50 kg (of circuit boards), you agree on where to meet, you hand over the material for them to process. You can call in the middle of the night and they will do it.” Only flawed circuit boards, rendered non-functional through the vagaries of past promiscuity, were relegated to extraction operations—collected, traded, and smuggled into the mountains deep in the night in a furtive skein of human activity. There, the material itself—“cooked” on hotplates, “washed” with acids, separated into commodities like gold or beryllium—iterated far from its erstwhile form to be incorporated into future manufacturing. Such relentless disarticulation was crucial. Any traces of object history would have lowered the value of the resulting commodity, like conspicuous impurities in jewellery.

The conversion logic of plastic corresponded with that of metal extraction—for the waste business relies, in part, on stripping objects of their objecthood along with any traces of object history to produce value. In 2017, two plastic scavengers related to Chao, a graduate student born and raised in Guiyu, articulated this process. For both, the critical stage was when they assessed the material for purchase, judging the type of plastic, calculating how much profit they could make. For each, decades of experience had honed their connoisseurship of the material. At the outset, it was as if they could see the shipment as already disintegrated, rendered into plastic fragments sorted and disarticulated for sale to another merchant for manufacturing. Throughout the value regimes of Guiyu, via interviews, this attitude seemed to predominate—the urgent fixation on converting such chimerically atomised but not yet converted material into money. In the next section, I explain the significance of this manner of thinking to geographies of materiality.

The extensive waste work in Guiyu generated toxicity that brought interpenetration of bodies and of promiscuous materials—namely residues of material conversion—to an unusually high degree. For example, Huo et al (2007) conclude that Guiyu suffered from extremely high levels of lead poisoning, as measured via blood tests of young children in the township. Lead (Pb) is a very common toxic heavy metal in electronics, a neurotoxin with grave detrimental effects on cognitive function (Needleman 2004). The sort of molten lead operations we witnessed in Guo and Peng’s workshop and elsewhere led to air emissions of lead that billowed into the surrounding community—with the highest levels in Beilin (Huo 2007), which was for years the epicentre of the township’s metal conversion trade. While concentrations therefore varied, such high atmospheric levels, along with evidence of lead in tests on land (Wang and Guo 2006) and widespread waste work involving lead, made it reasonable to assume that lead had affected many residents there (e.g., Needleman 2004). (Lead has no minimum acceptable tolerable daily intake [Canfield et al. 2003].) Within the waste regime of Guiyu, value regimes prioritising profit above all else led those in the waste trade to dismiss the miasmatic consequences of scavenging.Yet through robust conversion, promiscuous lead components were both melted down and then used to help dismantle and convert other barnacled components. Toxic lead then penetrated human bodies in a further vector of promiscuity. Take Zhao, one of the young men working with molten lead in the workshop, whose largely unventilated pool of lead helped remove vestigial components from capacitors. Dressed millennially in an oceanwater-patterned shirt with a stylised US Army sergeant’s patch on the shoulder, a drooping brown belt printed with fragments of English, and low-slung, rust-coloured jeans emblazoned “cycling—on the road,” the teenager had just graduated from high school and was working there for a couple of months to save money before looking for a better job in Shenzhen. Zhao was voluble about his life situation and aspirations but voiced no sense of the dangers of working intensively with lead—he was more concerned, sheepishly, with how low he thought his salary was. This was not unusual. Informants challenged the notion that Guiyu workers suffered from lead poisoning—first because they genuinely seemed to disregard it as a problem and next because they saw the idea as a clear threat to their livelihood. One of Chao’s plastic-scavenging relatives, above, opined in 2017 that while he thought Guiyu’s air was getting better, some degradation was inevitable. In his no-nonsense calculus, “Economy equals toxicity equals pollution… No pollution, no economy.” Promiscuous lead emissions are difficult to sense and identify for non-specialists. Indeed, attunement to toxic pollution in general remains murky and complex—symptoms creep up on one’s consciousness, if at all, and exposure often deadens the senses (see Shapiro 2015). The promiscuity of the mangle that brought Zhao’s and others’ exposure to such a serious toxicant amid the “slow violence” (Nixon 2011) of life in Guiyu—even as his boss Guo described it as relatively “light” (qingsong) refurbishment work—characterised most work in Guiyu, where disarticulation and recommoditization involved noxious emissions that effected striking, yet for locals mundane, interpenetration of bodies and scavenged materials. For instance, the common method used in Guiyu to test plastic involved impromptu incineration. Some resins are easily distinguishable to the eye (or to touch), but where necessary, seasoned traders and waste workers took a lighter and ignited the plastic to tell from its acrid smoke the resin classification and purity level that it represented. The smoke then penetrated human bodies and, via olfactory receptors, helped to deepen and refine the hard-won connoisseurship skillset of the scavenger. In this way, in a variety of work and domestic contexts, toxic air was routine for workers and residents in Guiyu but perplexing for ethnographers, for whom even outdoor air could be rank and eye-wateringly miasmatic.

Our two young female collaborators, Juanjuan and Yuying, had grown up in Guiyu and their sense of pollution threats there was shaped by the affective traffic of kin relations’ embroilment in the trade—bags of microchips traded in a home living area after tea, or gossip and tales of local derring-do narrated while seated outside on wobbly pink plastic chairs, themselves made from scavenged resins. Perhaps unsurprisingly, in a community like Guiyu characterised by material promiscuity with disarticulation and rearticulation on a massive scale, there existed some fascination with the idea of those mighty enough to resist scavenging’s toll. Informants spoke of Guiyu men unable to pass the army entrance exam—evidence, for some, of the level of contamination in the community. More striking were local legends regarding the conversely superhuman abilities and exploits of some prominent scavenging bosses. For example, several informants explained that the economic and political power of top Guiyu bosses, with tight links to local officials, had given them reputations for being not only untouchable but fearless and immensely physically strong. It was said that one powerful manager of a Guiyu metal-scavenging plant had fallen into a tank of sulphuric acid—used to extract precious metals—but in a feat of Shaolin perdurability had sprung out completely unharmed. Other bosses, unable to match this highly improbable level of resistance to caustic disarticulation, simply used their wealth to move away. Success allowed a number of workshop bosses thereby to sequester their families from the risky promiscuity of the e-waste trade. Yuying’s father, for example, had made a fortune in plastics scavenging, allowing her to study at university in another, more salubrious municipality. Wealthy bosses like him tended to purchase homes outside Guiyu to allow their families to live on relatively untainted land, breathe clean air, and consume more wholesome local produce.

Given the long, albeit undistinguished, history of agricultural work in Guiyu, it was ironic to note the many discursive and practical overlaps between scavenging on the one hand and agricultural/domestic labour on the other. Disarticulation and rearticulation of WEEE often relied on the traditional tools of the Chinese peasant. Erstwhile farmers found themselves using the same farming tools and exhibiting similar deportment while doing waste work—wielding shovels to collect and move piles of circuit boards the size of haystacks; raking recently washed plastic pellets to dry in the sun; loading carts to move bales of keyboards or bundles of computer mice or sacks of finished, separated material for resale, and so on. In a manner not uncommon in Chinese discourse, workers invoked terms imbued with affect and domesticity to describe the trade (e.g., the “cooking” [shao ban] of circuit boards; the “washing” of e-scrap with acids); intentionally or otherwise, this both euphemised the activity and seemed to soften, at least discursively, the work’s toxic promiscuity. Guiyu’s enthusiastic embrace of WEEE conversion, and the colossal amount of synthetic material brought into the township for scavenging in recent decades, not only distorted the area’s ecology but altered social practice to the extent that during the 2007-8 economic slowdown, and apparently during the current downturn, few residents seemed suddenly to begin to consider returning to a life of working the land and tending to livestock. An exception was Chao’s father, a plastics workshop owner who took the opportunity to retire and cultivate rice on family land. Chao explained, “He used to be a farmer… and he does it because he likes it. But my father and mother sell [off all their rice] and only eat rice from outside Guiyu. Too much pollution!” In this way, with the myriad conversions of the mangle and the social transformations the sector ushered in, even eco-skeptical residents ultimately acknowledged the toxic promiscuity that, via conversion, became sedimented in Guiyu’s soil, testament to the protean trajectories of the countless e-waste artifacts that iterated through the township, as I outline below.

Conclusion: Promiscuity, ruination, renewal

Theodor Adorno (1973 [1966]: 163-64) argues that “the history locked in the object can only be unlocked… [by the] positional value of the object in its relation to other objects.” He thereby urges a focus on “the process stored in the object” (emphasis added). Though his concern was fetishisation, with regard to waste conversion his words are prescient.

The things with which humans surround themselves and live their lives are protean material formations comprised of forces and processes temporarily fused and forever engaging with, and being transformed by, their human and nonhuman environments. But what if scholars were to conceive of such artifacts as always already disintegrated, as Gordillo (2015) views standing ruins as already “rubble?” What if the commodities cluttering lived milieux were already “crumbled,” as they were for Benjamin (2002: 13)? For a start, communities would be confronted with the consequences of the things they use and then discard—sometimes responsibly, sometimes not. This was, in fact, what tragically transpired in Japan in the spill of the 2011 tsunami. With the abrupt cataclysm, the contents of homes and businesses tumbled into the waste stream, and informants like Tetsu and Chihiro were forced to live through the bleak aftermath of such extreme promiscuity (including widespread toxicity of the disaster zone, even worse early on with plumes of smoke and other emissions). With regard to e-waste, when the miasmatic consequences described herein are localised, a more ethical orientation to the externalities of WEEE conversion is perhaps more achievable—recycling regimes in the EU and Japan offer compelling (though still flawed) models of workable alternatives. Yamada-san and neighbours hurled e-waste-encrusted debris onto bonfires in their struggle to manage the material pandemonium of the disaster’s aftermath, but when presented with a comprehensive plan to subject all that debris to the mangle to mine “resources,” he and other residents expressed enthusiasm for the plan.

The case studies here demonstrate the utility of the term “promiscuity” in elucidating the intimate yet undiscriminating interpenetration between deteriorating objects and humans in conversion sites. The fertile engagement between design, products, and reconversion in recycling facilities like PETEC in Japan could only be properly expressed via a relatively under-utilized term that conveys both the indiscriminate and the intimate. Promiscuity also captured the recursive concatenations that melted lead down from e-waste, then used pools of such lead to melt off encrusted components, and then penetrated human bodies of Chinese scavengers and their young neighbours and relatives in Guiyu.

The scholarly ramifications here for materiality are significant. E-waste artifacts are but instantiations along sometimes convoluted material pathways; such objects possess their ruined fate (and potential for new formations) in their very materiality. When conversion becomes integrated into the design of products, as with Panasonic and PETEC in Japan, object trajectories become less unmoored, more recursive, though in this case incorporated into particular capitalist visions of eco-strategy. Such materiality, highly promiscuous though it may be, is not infinitely convertible. Contrary to overblown circular-economy rhetoric, the recycling of waste plastics and metals is limited by the purity of the material, the care with which it is sorted, the processes used for conversion, and so on. Yet if, like the plastic traders above, geographers learn to see e-waste artifacts as already disintegrated, they can gain important insights. First, they glimpse the relentless, yet curiously astute, perspective of these industrious scavengers, who are unlikely connoisseurs of promiscuous materiality. Next, through their cognitive approach they can break away from enduring illusions of market processes and capitalist accumulation and embrace the inevitable disarticulation (and, sometimes, creative rearticulation) of the beguiling objects that engulf contemporary societies. In this context, it is illuminating to consider David Graeber’s discussion (2012, 280) of the relentless influence of capital, even in banal corners of recycling: “The idea that objects are intrinsically separate and self-identical seems to fly in the face of all common sense… [W]hat we take to be objects are really more like interlocking processes.” Set against rapacious global resource-consumption and rampant industrialisation, concerns over puny artifacts and metallic traces can seem like so much uneven shrapnel driven pell-mell by the mangle. Yet most people stubbornly view objects as discrete, unadulterated. As one German archaeologist (and audience member) explained, holding up his wedding band, “If I learned that this ring came from the gold teeth of Jews forced into concentration camps during the Holocaust, I would no longer be able to wear it.”12 Such object history, conveyed through materials that can appear to incur no debt to time whatsoever, recalls the symbolic potential of the aforementioned Olympic medals forged out of precious metals scavenged from Japan’s “urban mine” of electronic waste. Even as the substance remains essentially the same, awareness of cultural/historical provenance can alter human experience of an artifact utterly. It is ethnographers who are ideally placed tell the story of these artifacts, through compelling narratives of the pathways these discards wend in their sometimes convoluted trajectory through the mangle and beyond.

Along a terrain of conversion where deterioration of well-travelled, promiscuous artifacts is quickened and made pervasive in the lives (and bodies) of waste workers and others, the enmeshed processes of promiscuous objects seem both more easily discernible and more imponderable. Matter moves in and out of particular configurations that we call things, their ambits straying far from human intentionality. Waves of technomass take form and degrade, either through use or neglect, only to rise again in subsequent permutations. Human life in a sense resembles a slower version of the Japanese tsunami disaster, where promiscuous debris accumulates and modulates via disposal, ruination, and desultory conversion processes. The blob we encountered in Guiyu may have seemed ominous, with grimy and potentially toxic globules briefly congealed in a purgatory of form, but such material is plastic in both senses—adaptable enough to form part of more equitable relations with industrialised nations, where materials can enter new formations in communities unafraid to confront waste and the human consequences of promiscuity.


The research and fieldwork that ground this article were supported by the following generous awards: a John Fell OUP Research Fund grant (entitled “Urban Mining, Toxic Payload,” 2012-2013) and a Leverhulme Trust Project Grant (RPG-2014-224). See note 3 for further information.


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[1] The 2012 London Olympics required 9.6kg of gold, 1,210kg of silver and 700kg of copper to produce all its medals. In comparison, the amount of precious metals recovered in 2014 from discarded small-scale consumer electronics in Japan reached 143kg for gold, 1,566kg for silver and 1,112 tons for copper. (Recycling International:; accessed May 2017).

[2] Mindful of the material congruencies in the work described here, I use the term “scavenging” to refer to both formal and informal processes in order to maintain consistency throughout this analysis.

[3] My main research collaborator at the University of Oxford since 2010 has been the brilliant and talented Dr. Anna Lora-Wainwright. Our research and fieldwork were supported by a visionary and munificent John Fell OUP Research Fund grant (entitled “Urban Mining, Toxic Payload,” 2012-2013) and then by an extremely generous (and gratefully risk-tolerant) Leverhulme Trust Project Grant (RPG-2014-224). Prof. Li Liping at Shantou University Medical College kindly made our Guiyu fieldwork possible by sharing her many research contacts in the area. Professor Li also introduced us to several local students who aided in research collection. During fieldwork in South China, we were joined by then-Oxford DPhil student Loretta Lou. Dr Yvan Schulz has subsequently joined our Oxford-based research team from 2017, also funded by the Leverhulme Trust grant.

[4] Throughout this article I use pseudonyms to protect informants’ identities in social contexts fraught with potential fallout and retribution.

[5] PETEC stands for Panasonic Eco Technology Center.

[6] I am currently preparing another article on this topic.

[7] By contrast, Pickering employs the trope of the mangle to critique scientific practice and the production of knowledge.

[8] The relevant laws are outlined in Honda et al. 2016: 87.

[10] At the time, this field team included accomplished sinologist and ethnographer Dr. Anna Lora-Wainwright and Oxford DPhil student Loretta Lou, as well as myself. See note 3.

[12] Comment after my “Jour Fixe” presentation to the assembled Cluster of Excellence C: Asia and Europe in a Global Context, Heidelberg University, 15 May 2014.

About the Author

Peter Wynn Kirby is an environmental specialist, ethnographer, and Research Fellow in the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford, UK. He holds a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Cambridge. Peter has published two books (Boundless Worlds, 2009; Troubled Natures: Waste Environment, Japan, 2011) and numerous articles on topics related to environment, space/movement, and material conversions—everything from recycled plastic to reprocessed radioactive matter. He also disseminates his research in such publications as The New York Times, The Guardian, The South China Morning Post, and elsewhere.

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