Accepted paper:

Edifying flows, leaky cycles: discourses of circularity in Japan's e-waste trade

Author:

Peter Kirby (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

This paper presents much vaunted cycles of high-tech conversion in Japan and a largely disavowed side-loop of illicit export of wastes to China. The paper critiques both these systems while scrutinizing the symbiotic features they share and the leaky circularities they expose.

Paper long abstract:

By continually invoking circularity and mobilizing its populace, Japan has developed into one of the world's most enthusiastically recycling-oriented societies. Yet the moral economies of recycling there betray entrenched attitudes to waste, to edifying rationalization, and to productiveness on an archipelago that often defines itself with reference to material and thermodynamic scarcity. Perhaps most tellingly, varieties and practices of 'circular economy' in Japan—cryptically translated in policy documents as a 'sound material-cycle society'—derive from powerful discourses of efficiency and continual improvement (kaizen), much vaunted drivers of its globally successful electronics and automobile conglomerates. Along similar lines, circularity has spawned a sprawling apparatus of high-tech conversion facilities, heavily automated and competing amongst themselves for efficient supremacy through use of clever sorting technologies and design strategies—all the while drawing Japanese away from more eco-responsible approaches such as simple repair and reuse, for example. The exalted system also depends, crucially, on the banal labour of households and communities, fastidiously (or begrudgingly) participating in a complex and sometimes punitive regime of collection and conversion. Yet despite its admitted flaws and problematic distortions, this recycling system has chopped and whirred alongside a largely disavowed side-loop of more or less illicit export of usually lower-grade wastes to other countries, notably China. Focussing on electronic waste (a.k.a. e-waste, or WEEE) this paper critiques both these systems while scrutinizing the symbiotic features they share and the leaky circularities they expose.

panel Env10
Closed loops, loopholes, and profit: interpreting geographical imaginaries of material conversion