An Applied Anthropology of Electronic Waste in Central Australia
an applied anthropology study of electronic waste (e-waste) in the remote town
of Alice Springs, this dissertation chronicles how e-waste is understood and
managed in the arid interior of Australia. What is electronic waste?
‘Electronic’ refers to the presence and movement of electricity throughout an
object so that it may perform some expected function. Waste, however, defies
simple definition. Waste usually refers to something that has been discarded
due to being unwanted or unusable.
This dissertation traces and tracks the boundaries of e-waste in Central Australia using ethnographic methods, anthropological theories of waste, and digital garbology. Digital garbology, a synthesis of digital anthropology and garbology, helps to identify and recommend strategies for confronting uneven, and often unjust, distributions of e-waste. Rather than focusing solely on discarded consumer electronics, this dissertation takes a critical look into the different types of waste emerging from the production, use, maintenance, and discard of electronics.
Over the course of thirteen months of fieldwork in Alice Springs, it became clear that the label e-waste is not consistently applied to discarded electronics. E-waste is often discarded in out-of-sight locations such as landfills, recycling centers, and illegal dumping grounds. Before being discarded, however, unused electronics are often stored inside homes, sheds, and other living spaces. Rather than simply focusing on electronic objects that have already been thrown away, this dissertation explores how and why some electronics seem to resist being labeled as e-waste.
Why Alice Springs? The management of e-waste in Australia has focused on the recovery of valuable metals from the recycling of televisions, computers, and mobile phones at the expense of other discarded electronics such as solar panels and household appliances. And yet, the closest e-waste recycling facility to Alice Springs is over 1,500 kilometres (900 miles) away in Adelaide, South Australia. The remoteness of Alice Springs reduces the ecological benefits of recycling. However, it also creates room to discuss the viability of alternative e-waste management strategies such as reuse and repair.