Working on Progress by Yvan Schulz

yvanAnthropology News

Unauthorized Recyclers Keep Out

Discussions on the fate of discarded electrical and electronic devices (DEEDs, or “e-waste”) and the configuration of the recycling sector in the Global South are riddled with the adjectives “formal” and “informal.” Scientists, engineers, corporate representatives, government officials, environmental activists and journalists make this distinction to categorize economic actors, often in ways that convey the impression there are two distinct, well delineated camps.

There’s no doubt that the formal/informal dichotomy oversimplifies reality. In practice, one finds it difficult, if not impossible, to identify a clear-cut boundary within any country’s recycling sector. But, flawed as it is as an analytical tool, this dichotomy seems to do a fine job explaining the situation for a great number of people. Such a paradox requires further investigation. How to account for its success? Why do people use it? How does it shape the world? Below, I approach these questions by looking at the evolution of DEEDs recycling in mainland China.

The Shape of China’s “Formal System”

A mere decade ago, only a handful of countries had regulated DEEDs recycling and most of them belonged to the so-called “developed” world. China was among the first “developing” or “emerging” countries to follow suit. A common trait among those countries is that activities such as collection, repair, dismantling, pre-processing, aggregation, transport and resale were undertaken chiefly by small but well networked entities. The sector was composed of self-employed people, family businesses and small enterprises, all of which relied heavily on manual labor as well as on solidarity based on kinship or laoxiang (place of origin) ties. To a large extent, this still holds true in today’s China.

rest of the article is on Anthropology News website


Yvan Schulz is a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Neuchâtel. He explores the so-called “afterlife” of discarded electrical and electronic devices in Guangdong Province and other ares of China. His research is supported by a grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Recent publications and presentations

SCHULZ Yvan. (Forthcoming). “‘Fin de vie’ et renaissance clandestine en Chine du Sud. Quand des ‘déchets’ redeviennent des écrans plats”. Techniques et culture, [pagination unknown].

SCHULZ Yvan & STEUER Benjamin. (Forthcoming). “Dealing with Discarded e-Devices” in Eva Sternfeld (ed.) Routledge Handbook of Environmental Policy in China, [pagination unknown]. London: Routledge.

SCHULZ Yvan. (Forthcoming). “The great value of poor migrants: State policies, Christian morality and primary education in Sabah (Malaysia)”, Journal of Asia Pacific Anthropology, [pagination unknown].

SCHULZ Yvan. 2015. “Vers un nouveau régime en matière de déchets ? Réflexions critiques sur l’évolution du marché chinois des appareils high-tech d’occasion”, Perspectives Chinoises 2015/3, 47-56.

SCHULZ Yvan. 2015. “Towards a New Waste Regime? Critical Reflections on China’s Shifting Market for High-Tech Discards”, China Perspectives 2015/3, 43-50.

SCHULZ Yvan. 2012. “Time representations in social science”, Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 14(4), p. 381-387.

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