10. 11. 2022

‘Sorting materials, deciding their value: The value transformation in e-waste processing’ presentation at RGS-IBG Annual International Conference 2022 in Newcastle

Barbora presented a paper at the panel ‘Discard economies and dynamics of valuation in times of crisis’ organised by Julia Corwin and Katharina Grüneisl at Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) Annual International Conference 2022 on August 31, in Newcastle, United Kingdom.   

Sorting materials, deciding their value: The value transformation in e-waste processing

Barbora Stehlíková

The crises significantly affect the price movements of metals such as iron or aluminium, which is an important indicator for electronic and electrical “waste” (e-waste) management. In the COVID-19 pandemic, the production reduction led to the price hike of these metals. The discarded electronics as a resource of scrap materials attracted more attention, among others that of thieves who rob the valuable parts of the appliances. These thefts have economic, ecological, and political impacts on value and material transformation. However, besides the fluctuation of the metal market, other aspects affect the creation of value in e-waste disassembling. The revaluation of discarded electronics is continuously affected by workers’ perspectives and practices. A significant role plays the sorting and classification. Although categories of waste and materials are clearly defined in Czech legislation, this does not always correspond to the daily routines of workers. Their acts undermine the formal classificatory order and affect the outcomes of the disassembly process. I argue that the way workers classify materials significantly shapes various kinds of value for these materials.

Based on my ethnographic research at an e-waste processing company and in a company operating in compliance take-back scheme in Czechia, I show that in addition to macroeconomic aspects, individual practices of workers also interfere with the value and material transformation of e-waste. I discern the contextual factors that affect how workers classify and thus value the materials. These factors involve an experience shaped by nostalgia and relationships to people and things, as well as the materiality of things. In this paper, I shed new light on value considerations, highlighting value as dynamic and processual.