Illegal e-waste disposal. How economic interests hinder the prevention of environmental pollution

Academic Paper, 2018

20 Pages, Grade: 7,5 (Niederländisches System)


Master IRIO - European Integration

Research Paper-Global Environmental Politics

Elena Mertel

Fighting the e-waste problem - How do economic interests hinder the effectiveness of regulations implemented to prevent environmental pollution caused by illegal e-waste disposal?


Environmental pollution caused by massive amounts of electronic waste generated all over the globe each year has become a major issue on the politico-environmental agenda. This is due to the fact that electronics have a high material composition of hazardous components. The toxins present in electronic waste are multifarious (see Table 1, Appendix) and have devastating impacts on both public health and the environment in the areas of wrongful disposal (McCann & Wittmann 2015, Baldé et al. 2015; Hussain & Mumtaz 2014 among others). What is striking, even though economically developed countries clearly produce the highest amount of e-waste (Widmer et al. 2015, p. 440; McCann & Wittman 2015, p.35), those who suffer are often located in economically less developed areas in Africa and South Asia. Therefore, finding solutions to the ever growing need for sustainable e-waste disposal raises the question on how to approach the problem.

The European Union is widely acknowledged to play a pioneering role in addressing the issue by having established a uniform legislative framework upon its member states, having the highest collection rates of e-waste and the most detailed data on e-waste flows (McCann & Wittmann 2015, p.14; Baldé et al. 2015, p.44; Baldé et al. 2017, pp.6,72). However, it is also the second largest producer of e-waste around the world1 and with an overall collection rate of 35% far from having solved the problem (ibid.). In contrast to those countries directly affected by pollution, the European member-states in general have the infrastructure, scientific and technical capabilities to both guarantee a duly disposal and reduce the emergence of e-waste in the first place. In this regard, it remains questionable whether the measures taken are in fact as sufficient as generally perceived. In order to analyze this, there are several points of departure.

With the focus on environmental efficiency it should firstly be acknowledged that environmental goals are not stable but subject to change which complicates the evaluation of measures taken. A more promising approach therefore lies in examining how the operating regime aims to counter negative environmental effects. In shedding light on social, historical and economical dynamics present in international political decision-making processes it is possible to get a better understanding of the actual effectiveness ofan international regime under given circumstances.

Therefore, this paper aims to detect how the the interplay between environmental gains and economic interests influences the effectiveness of the EU's efforts to fight pollution caused by wrongful e-wast disposal. Accordingly, it contributes to the ongoing debate on the significance of international political economics for environmental policy-making processes. In that context, Stevis and Assetto criticize that,

[...] the IR literature on the environment, and its IPE subset, do not investigate how environmental problems and solutions emerge and are framed, except in relation to intergovernmental negotiations and, more recently, implementation. Equally important, most of this literature does not address the questions of social purpose - that is, the ways in which the framing of environmental problems and solutions reflects particular standpoints, values, and preferences. (Stevis & Assetto 2001, p.2)

This holds true for the majority of literature on e-waste disposal. While attempts were made to reveal prevailing economic interests in accordance with illegal e-waste trafficking (see for instance Hussain & Mumtaz 2014; Osibanjo & Nnorom 2007; Sullivan 2017; Tladi 2000) a more holistic attempt on the issue is still missing. This is of importance since the problem already arises with common patterns of production and consumption of electronic devices. While reviewing existing literature, it appears that the liberal economic orientation of "Western" regions such as the EU remains diluted as a taken-for-granted precondition. However, disregarding the impact of economic drivers in global environmental policy-making distorts important assumptions on the effectiveness of the measures taken.

In the following paper, I will first give an overview on the theoretical framework used, which basically refers to post-positivist assumptions on regime effectiveness and constructivist thoughts on economic interests within environmental policy-making. Moreover, two concepts - the precautionary principle and sustainable development - and the methodology are introduced. The main analysis, then, is divided into three sections in regard to the full life-cycle of electronic devices. Thus, the three sections refer to (1) e-waste generation, (2) electronics on the market, and (3) e-waste disposal. The findings of my analysis show that existing economic drivers have a significant impact on the capabilities of a variety of implemented regulations. Nevertheless, there are also approaches such as the circular economy model that are both environmentally and economically beneficial.

Theoretical Framework

The paper's analysis will be based on the following theoretical approaches. In this section, I therefore review post-positivist attempts on regime effectiveness and combine these different accounts with constructivist thoughts on deeply engrained economic interests within environmental policy-making processes.

While acknowledging the prevailing liberal economic institutional forces present within the international sphere of policy-making, it is also essential to keep in mind that the various actors involved are to different extents driven by regional, social, historical interests and conceptions. This, then, has an unequivocal impact on how decisions are legitimized, conceptualized and implemented. In shedding a light on these multilevel socially imposed conventions, reasons for certain behaviors of actors can be analyzed in a more coherent and enriching manner. In this respect, I will first refer to diversified strands of regime theory and second, place them within the broader context of constructivist considerations.

Probably the most renown definition of international regimes was provided by Stephen D. Krasner in his book International Regimes. Here it says, "International regimes are defined as principles, norms, rules, and decision-making procedures around which actor expectations converge in a given issue-area" (Krasner 1983, p.l). However slightly diverging in terminology and focus, many other scholars come to similar assumptions on how to define international regimes. Keohane and Nye speak of "sets of governing agreements" that incorporate "networks of rules, norms, and procedures that regularize behavior and control its effects" (Keohane and Nye in Krasner 1983, p.2). Oran Young sees regimes as "social institutions governing the actions of those interested in specifiable activities (or adapted sets of activities)" (Young 1983, p.93). In the context of e-waste, this means than that those states that have acknowledged the threat illegal e-waste disposal poses create a network of rules and procedures in order to overcome this problem. In practice, it is then constituted in legal actions such as the Basel Convention.

However, it is also important to note that there is a distinction between arrangements, which are commonly ad hoc agreements dealing only with a particular issue for a limited period of time, and regimes that are complex social institutions. Accordingly, regimes are more than temporary agreements and resist - in most cases - shifts in power or interest. Yet, these institutions are in flux and thus subject to social and historical changes (Krasner 1983, pp.2-3; Young 1983, p.94). Young goes a step further in claiming that regime activities are "[...] taking place entirely outside the jurisdictional boundaries of sovereign states [...], or cutting across international jurisdictional boundaries [...]" (Young 1983, p.93). This explains, then, that deviance can occur in institutional realms since actors might be in opposition with domestic activities or interest-group driven objectives and those actions that are aimed at by the regime. Yet, conventionalized behavior within international regimes fosters feelings of legitimacy and propriety for decisions and even painful policies. This behavior ideally leads to widespread conformity among the regime's members. The extent of institutionalized sets of social conventions, however, diverges from regime to regime and thus there is no meaning in laying down specific thresholds in order to entitle the status of regime (Young 1983, pp.94-95; Chasek et al. 2010, p.29).

Deriving from those central principles of regime theory, post-positivist institutionalist approaches focus on the effectiveness of international regimes. Especially in respect to environmental concerns, the main criticism of these scholars toward their colleagues is based on the fact that "the object of analysis [...], is not [effectively] embedded in the social, political, economic, and environmental context in which it operates" (Kütting 2001, p.183). This means that problems addressed in international regimes are often depoliticized from exogenous structures and circumstances and thus primarily dealt with within the limited scope of their institutional setting. Environmental problems are accordingly addressed in a rather neutral setting, isolated from other concurrent criteria that determine the prevailing political arena (Kütting 2001, pp.183-84; Paterson 1995 in Kütting 2001, p.188). This holds especially true, as Paterson outlines, for internal power balances ofthese regimes,

The regimes established to resolve transnational environmental problems always benefit some social groups more than others, whether or not they are successful from a purely environmental point of view and they also preclude the broader questions of whether the existing political, social and economic orders may themselves generate environmental crises." (Paterson 1995 in Kütting 2001, p.188)2

How can the effectiveness of an international regime be evaluated then? The most primitive answer to that is to analyze the degree of environmental improvement compared to the pre- institutional condition. However, this does not necessarily reveal the intrinsic effectiveness of the particular regime. Put differently, there is a distinction between the institutional problem-solving efforts and the quality of the solution itself (Kütting 2001, p.186-189). Thus, a regime might successfully implement a regulation on the illegal trafficking of e-waste between "developed" and "less developed" countries and thus consider its goals met while it actually only shifts the trading routes and practically does not improve the state of the environment.

This is repeatedly reflected in the often contradicting issue-areas of environmental and economic interests. The strong impact of economic growth objectives juxtaposes efforts of environmental protection in many cases (Chasek et al. 2010, pp.15-18; Stevis & Assetto 2001, p.3). In this respect, economic interests are often integrated in environmental regulations resulting in a particular framing of the problem. According to Stevis & Assetto, clarifying the ways in which problems are framed, or how Koopmann puts it, "the thinking that comes to constitute our condition" (Koopmann in Bacchi 2012, p.l), helps us to detect "the social forces involved, their unequal capacities, and their different values and preferences" (Stevis & Assetto 2001, p.4)

As to examine whether the regime is effective it is thus necessary to shed a light on the structural inequities and how an issue is conceptualized under specific circumstances in order to get a better understanding of the resulting dynamics and outcomes (Deacon in Bacchi 2012, p.l; Stevis & Assetto 2001, pp.4-6).

The theoretical framework provided will be of use for the analysis in order to examine the efficiency of the measures taken by the EU. The insights presented on international regime theory and its effectiveness provide a basis for analyzing what kind of regime is instituted for the depicted problem as well as its main dynamics. By combining these thoughts with the constructivist approach on how environmental problems are framed allows me to conclude that the measures taken to fight e-waste are not as environmentally efficient as they could be. Additionally, the following concepts touch on the dichotomy of environmental and economic interests.


Sustainable Development

The concept of sustainable development gained prominence with the 1987 Brundtland Report. Here, it says, that sustainable development is "development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs" (WCED 1987 in Ramcilovic-Suominen & Pülzl 2018, p.1470). This rather broad interpretation has been given more conciseness by various scholars over the years. The key objectives nowadays are described as the interconnection between humans and nature, while the significance of economic dynamics is attributed to differing extents depending on the scholar(Attfield 2015, p.106; Ramcilovic-Suominen & Pülzl 2018, pp.1470-72). Thus, sustainable development seeks to combine a more responsible use of resources with simultaneous economic growth, or as Attfield puts it, "to adopt life-styles within the planet's ecological means" (Attfield 2015, p.106). The main point of critique is allocated by profound doubts about its feasibility (Attfield 2015, pp.llOff.). Thus, it is claimed that it is not possible to guarantee constant economic growth without furthering environmental problems.

What is further special about the concept is that due to its rather self-interpretive nature, it is similarly "appealing to Northern and Southern countries," (Ramcilovic-Suominen & Pülzl 2018, p.1470) as well as to "experts and decision-makers, but also [to the] civic society and interest groups"(Meadowcroft in Ramcilovic-Suominen & Pülzl 2018, p.1472). In this respect, sustainable development is often referred to within policy-processes in order to justify certain processes. However, as Ramcilovic-Suominen & Pülzl outline, "[t]hanks to the wide, but also self-interpretive definition, the concepts allow various actors to make related pledges without necessarily undertaking any significant changes to their existing policies, strategies and actions" (Ramcilovic- Suominen & Pülzl 2018, p.1470).


1 Latest numbers provided by the Global E-Waste Monitor state that Europe has generated 12.3 Mt e-waste in 2016 substituting for 16.6 kg/inh..On a global scale, the EU thus scores second highest in total e-waste generation and also in its per capita generation (Baldé et. al 2017, pp. 6, 72).

2 See also Chasek et al. 2010, p. 16. "Different combinations of internal economic and political forces influence states' policies toward environmental issues. Because the actual costs and risks of environmental degradation are never distributed equally among all states, some governments are less motivated than others to participate in international efforts to reduce environmental threats. States also often possess different views about what constitutes an equitable solution to a particular environmental problem. Yet, despite interests, states must strive for consensus, at least among those that significantly contribute to, and are significantly affected by, a given environmental problem."

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Illegal e-waste disposal. How economic interests hinder the prevention of environmental pollution
University of Groningen
Global Environmental Politics
7,5 (Niederländisches System)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
e-waste, waste management, circular economy, economy, environment, environmental protection, WEEE, European Union, Basel Convention
Quote paper
Elena Mertel (Author), 2018, Illegal e-waste disposal. How economic interests hinder the prevention of environmental pollution, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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