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date: 01 March 2021

Digital Garbologyfree

  • Gideon SingerGideon SingerPurdue University


What is electronic waste? E-waste is both a by-product of manufacturing processes and the disposal of end-point devices in our digital infrastructure—the mountains of televisions, microwaves, video game consoles and handhelds, Christmas lights, and so on which are often visualized in news reports and popular media. However, digital garbology reveals an alarming assemblage of additional externalities resulting from the hyper consumption of electronic devices and even digital services requiring significant amounts of physical and social resources to operate (such as Facebook, Netflix, and bitcoin). Consequently, digital worlds are neither more nor less material than the worlds that preceded them. And yet, digital media is often perceived as immaterial because of a growing disconnect between people and the wires, power sources, and data centers that enable them to access digital worlds. Anthropologists practicing digital garbology have a critical role to play in helping to counteract the socioecological consequences of the world’s fastest growing waste stream empathetically and strategically.

Waste is a quintessential anthropological topic because it crosscuts the subfields of archaeology, linguistic anthropology, biological or physical anthropology, and sociocultural anthropology. The digital is also becoming an essential topic for 21st-century anthropologists looking to interpret and design the interactions people have with social media, surveillance technology, geographic information systems (GIS), and Self-Monitoring Analysis and Reporting Technology (SMART). Anthropological archaeologists have increasingly integrated archaeological and ethnographic methods to make contributions to policy, public perceptions, and behavioral interventions concerning consumption, discard, recycling, and reuse. However, it is only in the last decade, from 2010 on, that anthropology and closely related disciplines have begun paying attention to electronic waste.

Digital garbology, a synthesis of digital anthropology and garbology, is a novel and essential framework for practicing anthropology in the 21st century. Digital garbology helps to identify and recommend strategies for confronting uneven, and often unjust, distributions of e-waste onto marginalized communities. Furthermore, digital garbology encourages anthropologists to support community-based actions such as organizing repair cafés, participating in local government, banding with activists to challenge multinational corporations, and drawing attention to the blind spots in environmental, economic, and social discourse concerning waste produced by digital technologies.

Waste is disorderly. Sociocultural anthropologists and linguists have been engaging with the symbolic meaning of waste, dirt, and pollution since the 1950s. Archaeologists encounter waste routinely in the form of discarded material culture from past and, in some cases, present societies. Since the 1990s, waste has become increasingly relevant to biological anthropologists concerned with the implications of living and working near hazardous waste. Despite nearly a century of research, several disagreements surrounding waste persist. Is waste merely something that people no longer want? If so, which people? Should it still be considered waste if someone else values it? By categorically marking objects, things, or even people as worthless, waste becomes a powerful inverse expression of that which is invaluable.

The digital is now an in vogue topic for 21st-century anthropologists looking to interpret and design the interactions people have with social media, surveillance technology, GIS (geographic information systems), and SMART (Self-Monitoring Analysis And Reporting Technology) devices. As these digital technologies become invaluable to consumers and researchers alike, what is their inverse? In the last decade, since 2010, anthropology and closely related disciplines have begun paying attention to e-waste (electronic waste), a specific type of waste associated with the proliferation of electronic and digital objects near the end of the 20th century (e.g., Kirby and Lora Wainwright 2015; Little and Lucier 2017; Reddy 2015). While electronic objects have been around for centuries, digital infrastructure, defined here as the full assemblage of people, objects, and policies that enable the internet, is a more recent phenomenon.

Contrary to popular notions of the digital as an incorporeal cloud, the digital is not tantamount to an immaterial ether of data. Rather, as Miller and Horst (2012) argue, digital worlds are neither more nor less material than the worlds that preceded them. For example, social media and media streaming service platforms create e-waste in the form of spent hardware and pollutants associated with the manufacturing, maintenance, recycling, and eventual discard of data center equipment.

Digital Garbology

Digital garbology is the study of waste in relation to the digital world. This waste includes a vast array of discarded electronic devices as well as waste and debris from the manufacturing of these devices. Digital garbologists have two primary tasks: (a) to update anthropological understandings of waste by utilizing new methods inspired by the digital technologies, and (b) to draw attention to the full breadth of waste generated by our consumption of electronic devices and digital infrastructure. Success is largely contingent upon the ability of digital garbologists to synthesize over 70 years of waste scholarship in anthropology and closely related disciplines.

Digital garbology has its roots in a deceptively complex question: what is electronic waste? This question is often accompanied by requests for additional information: “Do you mean the junk mail that spammers keep sending me? Oh wait, sorry. Did you mean, like, the amount of time I spend on social media?” These misunderstandings between the researcher and interviewee, however, are key examples of why anthropology is needed to more deeply understand the meaning of waste. Digital garbology has been developed as a means to explore why all of these things—the junk emails, the wasted time on social media or digital entertainment, the broken laptops and household appliances—are e-waste and the resulting implications for e-waste management and policy schemes.

Electronic Waste: Discarded Electronics and Digital Waste

There is no simple definition of e-waste. It is both a by-product of manufacturing processes and the disposal of end-point devices in our digital infrastructure—the mountains of televisions, microwaves, video game consoles and handhelds, Christmas lights, and more. E-waste is also undeniably entangled with the waste produced by energy consumption, water contamination, and the maintenance of digital infrastructure. Digital services (e.g., social media, crypto-currency, and media streaming platforms) require a significant amount of physical and social resources and routinely generate waste electrical equipment. Household appliances are increasingly being retrofitted with electronic components and Wi-Fi connectivity, making it increasingly difficult to trace the full breadth of waste associated with the use of a refrigerator, thermostat, or any other SMART appliance.

The colloquial descriptions of e-waste as a form of junk messages or simply wasting time browsing the many chasms of the World Wide Web should not be dismissed merely because they do not adhere to the strict sense of solid waste applied in the domains of waste policy and regulations. Digital waste in the form of junk emails and deleted digital files is understood as a subset of e-waste. E-waste is and must be a flexible category that includes discarded hardware, digital waste such as junk emails, “wasted time,” and the expenditures required to keep people and their SMART appliances connected. By leveraging anthropological theories of waste, digital garbologists are well positioned to maintain a fluid definition of e-waste which incorporates the many different understandings of e-waste.

Towards an Anthropology of E-Waste

Waste has been an ongoing subject of anthropological theory (Douglas [1966] 2002; Thompson ([1979] 2017) and continues to be theorized by ethnographers (e.g., Millar 2018; Nagel 2013; Nguyen 2019; Reno 2016), interdisciplinary scholars engaged in discard studies (e.g., Lepawsky 2018; Liboiron 2018), and archaeologists (Parikka 2014; Sosna and Brunclíková 2016; Taffel 2016). As an anthropology of e-waste, digital garbology is concerned with what e-waste means to different people as well as the various effects e-waste is having and will have on humanity. Digital garbology draws upon two key areas of scholarship: discard studies and behavioral archaeology.

Discard Studies

Over the past decade (2010 forward), anthropologists and scholars engaged in discard studies—an interdisciplinary collective of geographers, anthropologists, humanities scholars, and others—have become chiefly concerned with the social lives of discards (Lane et al. 2009; McMullen et al. 2019). Anthropological theories of waste have helped shaped the debate on how to think, speak, and react to waste. As plastic, heavy metal, and chemical pollutants circulate through human bodies, oceans, and food chains, discard studies have reengaged with anthropological ideas from the 1960s and 1970s. Mary Douglas famously argued that waste, dirt, and pollution are the product of social classifications which render certain objects, people, and ideas as external to or outside the realm of social relations ([1966] 2005). Terms such as discards, waste, and trash often carry with them a colloquial connotation of being disorderly, dirty, disgusting, or polluting (Douglas 2002; McMullen et al. 2019). Nonetheless, theorizing waste or discards as “matter out of place” has been critiqued for its preoccupation “with projecting social value onto and investing power into objects” at the expense of ignoring environmental pollution resulting from contemporary types of waste such as e-waste (Liboiron 2016, 7; Reno 2015). Building upon these critiques, discard studies focuses on the various ways humans and nonhumans are increasingly dependent upon and affected by waste matter.

Discard studies differ from conventional research on waste management strategies and policies in two important ways. First, they seek to reframe waste and pollution “as the material externalities of complex systems” by critiquing “industrialization, capitalism, and global economies as engines of waste” and focusing on the scale, toxicity, longevity, and heterogeneity of mass waste (Liboiron 2018). A critical assessment of contemporary waste management strategies illuminates how those who work with waste are exposed to disproportionate physical harms and social stigmas. For example, in a chapter aptly titled “Ghostly and Fleshly Lines,” anthropologist Joshua O. Reno provides ethnographic evidence of the social divisions that arise as humans distance themselves from mass waste (2016). While crossing into the United States through Michigan, waste haulers from Canada were marked, like their cargo, as a social bad “something that ought to go somewhere else to be dealt with by someone else” by residents living near a landfill receiving hazardous waste (Reno 2016, 208). Digital garbologists must take stock of the social divisions arising from the distance placed between individuals and the e-waste they produce.

Following World War II, the consumer goods revolution restructured industry toward mass production and consumption. This shift encouraged design changes that decreased the lifespan of commodities and created the meteoric rise of packaging and advertising industries (Herod et al. 2013). Planned obsolescence became an instrument used by manufactures to devalue commodities rapidly rather than allow them to be used up or devalorized (Herod et al. 2013, 380). While a great deal more can be said about planned obsolescence in relation to e-waste, it is worth focusing on the very real effects e-waste and other forms of 20th-century waste are having and are anticipated to have on Earth itself.

Nuclear waste, plastic waste, space debris, and other industrial materials are characteristically toxic, heterogeneous, and massive in scale (Grays-Cosgrove et al. 2015; MacBride 2012). This waste, including e-waste, threatens “‘to disrupt all orderings, all plans, all impacts,’ on a planetary scale, from ocean acidification to the survival of the human species,” affecting the geological makeup of the Earth (Liboiron 2016, 4). For media archaeologist Jussi Parikka, the Earth itself is a recording device, a medium containing geological information. Therefore, geological surveys are: “sites of transformation where the earth becomes an object of systemized knowledge and the knowledge thus created of the earth's resources is mobilized toward technological production, governmental geopolitics, and increasingly a global survey of the minerals of earth” (Parikka 2014, 4). At a global scale, e-waste reveals the unsustainable and self-destructive speeds of contemporary capitalism (Taffel 2016, 347). Media archaeology is chiefly focused on the submerged and obfuscated realities of e-waste, especially e-waste arising from communications infrastructure (e.g., telecom networks, visual media, and data centers). Although media archaeology lends perspective to the notion that e-waste will be physically with us for a long time, digital garbology must also draw vital attention to how people live, work, and understand e-waste, especially in the places where e-waste sieves and settles.

Discard studies are also concerned with the productive afterlife of waste (Reno 2015), including the effect of waste matter on “local and global political disputes, liberal and illiberal forms of governance, competing assessments of economic and moral value, and concerns about environmental pollution and crisis” (Reno 2015, 558). Digital garbology draws specifically on the life history framework developed in behavioral archaeology (Schiffer 2011) to illuminate waste from resource extraction, electronics manufacturing, and digital infrastructures as well as the potential afterlives of e-waste to scholars, policymakers, waste management experts, and activists.

Behavioral Archaeology: The Life History of Electronics

When electronic things break down, their component parts move through homes, repair centers, transfer stations, states and territories, and international boundaries where they accrue different values and meanings (Cross and Murray 2018).The life history framework, as employed by behavioral archaeology, is a useful means to trace how artifacts, including electronic devices and digital software, interact with people, other objects, and infrastructure throughout time and space. Behavioral archaeology is “the study of material objects regardless of time or space in order to describe and explain human behavior” (Reid, Schiffer, and Rathje 1975, 864). The expansion of archaeology into the present and contemporary past set a critical precedent for Rathje’s garbage project (1984) and subsequent archaeological studies of complex technological systems (Schiffer 2011). The life history framework stresses that electronic devices and digital software “begin as raw materials” (Schiffer 2011, 23). Materials are extracted from the Earth, manufactured and assembled into electronic devices, transported and exchanged, used and reused, repaired and maintained, and eventually discarded or abandoned (Schiffer 1972, 2011, 23). In other words, this framework provides a conceptual means to hone into where, why, and how discards and residues emerge across the life history of electronics. Rather than merely focusing on e-waste as discarded hardware, digital garbologists must consider e-waste and other hazardous forms of refuse or pollutants emanating from digital infrastructure.

Geographers are also concerned with the movement of discarded electronics and plastics across commodity chains and networks (Lepawsky and Mather 2011). E-waste does not move along a commodity chain in a linear progression. For example, Lane (2011) documents household hard rubbish (including e-waste) being diverted from recycling streams by curbside scavengers in Melbourne, Australia. Since the early 2000’s, geographers have implemented sophisticated commodity network and actor–network models to make sense of the transboundary movement of waste and discards (Hughes 2000, 177; Lepawsky and Mather 2011). Transboundary movement refers to a particular object moving across political, geographic, and symbolic boundaries. Digital garbology is certainly informed by research on the commodification and transboundary movement of e-waste. For example, Lepawsky and Mather (2011) quickly discovered that the categorization of a discarded electronic as waste was subject to change as it moved along various points in a commodity network.

The life history framework (fig. 1) is similarly nonlinear; electronic devices do not follow a straight line from production to consumption and discard. Figure 1 maps out how four primary activities or stages in the life history of electronics (resource extraction, manufacturing, consumption, and discard) relate to activities such as storage, repair, reuse, landfilling, upcycling, remanufacturing, and resource recovery.

Figure 1. The life history of electronics.

The extraction of rare earth elements is required for the manufacturing of electronic components used in laptops, solar panels, and larger data centers and servers. As a result, a copious amount of waste is produced in the form of tailings, a mixture of crushed rock and fluids used to process rare earth elements. These tailings contain potentially hazardous contaminants that adversely affect human and animal health (Huang et al. 2016). Studies have found that residents and animals living near tailing disposal sites are more likely to suffer from respiratory illnesses, cardiovascular diseases, leukemia, osteoporosis, and lung and liver cancer (Huang et al. 2016, 534) Furthermore, nearly all rare earth deposits contain radioactive elements thorium and uranium (Huang et al. 2016, 532).

The recovery of rare earth elements from recycled e-waste also poses the risk of leaving substantial traces of harmful contaminants in human bodies and the environment (Sepúlveda et al. 2010). For example, e-waste may contain and release hazardous materials such as lead, chromium, mercury, polyvinyl chloride plastics (PVCs), and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). Exposure to toxins from e-waste recycling adversely affects mental and physical health, neurodevelopment, thyroid function, cellular expression and function, and is associated with adverse neonatal outcomes, changes in temperament and behavior, and decreased lung function (Grant et al. 2013). E-waste also poses a cross-species predicament. For example, halogenated organic pollutants have been found to bioaccumulate in fish serum near e-waste processing sites in South China (Zeng et al. 2014). Rather than remaining within processing sites, heavy metals and toxic chemicals are carried by air, dust, wastewater, and sediment. Those living near e-waste processing, incineration, and recycling sites in South China were found to have higher concentrations of harmful dioxins and furans in a study on human hair (Luksemburg et al. 2002; Sepúlveda et al. 2010). The sheer tonnages of e-waste, including hazardous materials ejected from the manufacturing and transportation of electronic devices already discarded in landfills, are particularly difficult to quantify.

Activities such as repair, reuse, and upcycling lessen the demand for rare earth extraction, reduce the burden of tailings, and slow the rate in which e-waste will be landfilled or processed for recycling. While recycling emphasizes materials being recovered for remanufacturing similar devices and components, upcycling involves the reimagining of materials as something new. For example, in Bangladesh, Lepawsky and Mather (2011) found that gold extracted from e-waste originating in North America was being transformed into gold bars or jewelry for a wedding ceremony. In other words, e-waste was upcycled into something of significant economic and symbolic value. Ultimately, however, each of these activities eventually results in e-waste. For example, mobile phone and laptop repairs require the sourcing of components and will result in the discard of faulty parts. There are no silver bullets that will result in a world of zero e-waste. And yet, digital garbologists have a pivotal role to play in affecting the rate in which e-waste is produced at all stages of the life history of electronics.

Rates of e-waste production are influenced by various actors and activities along the life history of electronics (fig. 2). For example, policymakers and manufacturers negotiate extended producer responsibility pertaining to the design specifications of consumer electronics as well as who will provide resources to manage the collection and recycling of discarded electronics. Planned obsolescence (top left), a method of design that requires consumers to constantly upgrade or replace their electronic devices, undeniably increases the speed of e-waste production. However, rates of e-waste production can be slowed by advocating for repairability as a key design requirement followed by recyclability.

Figure 2. Key actors affecting the life history of electronics.

The social lives of electronic objects do not begin and end in the home; rather, they stretch across geographies, communities, and economies (Appadurai 1986). Furthermore, waste and pollution are produced at every stage of an electronic object’s biography (Kopytoff 1986). Resource extraction, the first stage of the life history of electronics, produces tailings with dangerous heavy metals and radioactive materials. The subsequent transport and manufacturing of electronic devices produces airborne pollutants, carbon emissions, and toxic residues. Even the recycling of consumer electronic devices like mobile phones, televisions, computers, and solar panels also produces e-waste. Fumes from lead-soldered circuit boards or plastic-covered wires become airborne, waterborne, and blood-borne toxins while scrap metal becomes ornate gate locks and household implements (Lepawsky and Mather 2011).

Digital garbology is also concerned with the strategies that individuals and social collectives employ to slow the production of e-waste such as reuse and repair. Ethnographic research confirms that discarded electronics also enhance the lives of mobile phone repairers in India (Doron 2012), e-waste recyclers in Bangalore (Reddy 2015), and hackers in Spain (Delgado and Callén 2017). Reuse may be regarded as a substitution of new things with those that have already been used by someone else or for something else (Lane et al. 2009). Understanding the activity of reuse is vital to digital garbology because reuse reduces the rate in which other materials need to be consumed to produce new electronics and components. And yet, even reused electronics will generate waste and pollutants as they inevitably break down and require the replacement of worn-out or obsolete components. Furthermore, the recycling of e-waste produces material remainders in the form of emissions, spent parts, and toxic residues (Gabrys 2011; Lepawsky 2018).

Researching Electronic Waste with Digital Garbology

In the past decade, anthropologists, sociologists, and geographers have made progress documenting the complexities of electronic waste. These studies are developing alongside health and environmental assessments of e-waste recycling (e.g., Grant et al. 2013; Sepúlveda et al. 2010; Song and Li 2014). Anthropological work on the topic of e-waste tends to be oriented toward the sites and places where discarded electronics aggregate to be recycled or landfilled (e.g., Akese and Little 2018; Kirby and Lora-Wainright 2015; Reddy 2015). Ethnographic attention to e-waste has focused predominantly on the conditions and consequences of working with e-waste in countries such as China (Kirby 2019; Kirby and Lora-Wainright 2015), Ghana (Little and Lucier 2017), Kenya (Cross and Murray 2018), and India (Reddy 2015). In some cases, although less common, others have also focused on the storage and stockpiling of unused electronics (Kennedy and Wilken 2016; McMullen et al. 2019). Collectively, these studies challenge the many garbage myths associated with electronics such as the popular belief that digital media is somehow immaterial and the erroneous assumptions about the global flow of discarded electronics (Gabrys 2011; Lepawsky 2018; Lepawsky and Mather 2011; Little and Lucier 2017; Parikka 2011; Pickren 2014; Taffel 2015). And yet, e-waste remains an onerous challenge for waste management professionals, environmental activists, and individuals involved in the reuse, repair, and resale of secondhand electronics around the world.

Anthropological archaeologists have increasingly integrated archaeological and ethnographic methods to make contributions to policy, public perceptions, and behavioral interventions concerning consumption, discard, recycling, and reuse (Adams 1984; Brunclíková 2016; Rathje 1978, 2001, 2011; Schiffer et al. 1981; Sosna 2016; Tani and Rathje 1995). Although the term “digital garbology” is first used by Gabrys (2011) in her sociological study of e-waste, this incarnation of digital garbology is derived from a combination of the late William Rathje’s garbage project (1984, 2001) and recent developments in digital anthropology (e.g., Horst and Miller 2012; Pink et al. 2016).


In the 1970s, some archaeologists radically reimagined archaeological sites to include landfills, household waste bins, and litter. Archaeology proved to be a powerful tool for analyzing household patterns of consumption via their discards. For example, in a US case study, Tani and Rathje (1995) found that the rate dry cell batteries were discarded by households nearly doubled between 1975 and 1995. They argued that the analysis of refuse from US households is essential to a comprehensive picture of battery purchase, use, and discard (Tani and Rathje 1995, 101). Their sample consisted of data from nearly four thousand household garbage pickups which were then aggregated by census tract and collection period (Tani and Rathje 1995, 87–88). The aggregated data were analyzed for socioeconomic variables such as income, age, and ethnicity. Higher-income households were found to consume (and discard) more dry cell batteries. Additionally, age composition played an important role in determining dry cell battery use. The study also found that Anglo and Hispanic Americans discard three times more batteries than African Americans. Garbologists quickly recognized that open-ended interviews about the purchase and use of battery-operated devices, as well as about the purchase and discard of batteries themselves, would add considerable depth to the findings they generated from their aggregated database. When used in isolation, garbage archaeology is far from realizing its potential value. There must be strong collaborations between archaeologists, cultural anthropologists, and marketers.

William Rathje, founder of the Garbage Project at the University of Arizona, was inspired by Webb and his colleagues’ (1966) call for triangulating data using multiple methods. Following Webb et al. (1966), Rathje argued that neither interviews, surveys of participants, nor observations of participants were sufficient, either by themselves or in combination, in accounting for human behaviors such as reuse and discard (2001). Instead, he advocated for the additional analysis of material trace measures to describe, analyze, and understand adequately the ways social systems both behave and evolve (Rathje 2001, 61). Garbologists, now armed with an array of questionnaires, interview schedules, and surveys, contribute to our understanding of discarded objects as an indicator of our cultural and material metabolism, the rate at which we consume objects and symbols to maintain our physical and social forms (Brunclíková 2016; Rathje 2011; Schiffer et al. 1981; Sosna 2016). However, questionnaires and interviews are merely one facet of what can be gained from an ethnographic approach to garbage. Brunclíková (2016) and Sosna (2016) draw more deeply upon participant observation in their investigations to interpret the everyday routines and rhythms of consumption and recycling practices in households and landfills.

A Digital Garbology of E-Waste

The question of where an anthropologist conducts fieldwork has been impacted fundamentally by globalization throughout the 20th century and the proliferation of social media technologies at the end of the 20th century. Electronic devices and the digital infrastructure enable anthropologists to radically alter how and where they conduct research, share results, and manage relationships and data outside of the field. Digital garbologists must employ a wide range of methodologies rooted in garbology, ethnography, and geographic information systems (GIS) to engage with the various sites, people, and activities invoked by the life history of electronics (figs. 1 and 2).

From the inception of garbology in the 1970s, ethnography has played a significant role in helping anthropologists to triangulate the complex relationships between human behavior, values, and waste. Digital garbology also borrows heavily from the standard ethnographic toolkit (e.g., multiple methods, induction, and participant observation). The digital aspect of digital garbology, however, is informed by the cutting-edge principles of digital ethnography. Digital ethnography is a recalibration of ethnographic methods that considers the affordances and consequences of conducting research on and with digital technologies. Digital ethnography adds a central feature to digital garbology: namely, the ability to follow the behaviors and values associated with e-waste across digital and nondigital places.

In 2016, a group of scholars from the Digital Ethnography Research Centre at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) described key principles of digital ethnography that are of direct relevance to digital garbology (Pink et al. 2016). Decentering the digital is a key strategy digital ethnographers employ to learn more about the stories, relationships, and other types of meaning people attribute to electronic devices and digital media. Rather than analyzing the technological affordances of a particular device or digital platform, digital ethnographers are concerned with the ways in which digital media are entangled with other activities, technologies, objects, feelings, and experiences (Pink et al. 2016, 10).

Digital garbology also must decenter the digital to understand how behaviors, values, technologies, experiences, and feelings are entangled with discarded electronics. For example, a team of interdisciplinary researchers at Purdue University has taken a deeper look into these entanglements by focusing on electronic devices stored in the “junk drawer” (see fig. 3). The term “junk drawer” refers to a segregating space, such as a drawer, attic, or basement box, a garage shelf, storage trailer, or closet, which is often either hidden in plain sight or in less public areas of the house (McMullen et al. 2019, 4). The focus shifts from the digital itself and onto the story of a particular device—asking how it ended up in storage and what it means to the owner (McMullen et al. 2019). Surveys on household e-waste in countries such as the United States (Saphores et al. 2009) have revealed that a significant portion of e-waste remains stored in basements, attics, sheds, and other domestic living spaces but do not explain why people are more likely to store electronics. Digital ethnography can help clarify these storage practices by focusing on the various entanglements a person can have with an electronic device. Attention to how and why emotions and experiences are entangled with stored electronic devices will help practitioners to design e-waste interventions that encourage individual stewardship at the household scale (Lane and Watson 2012).

Figure 3. Photos of “junk drawers” taken in the field: junk box (top left); junk shelf (top right); junk van (bottom left); junk corner (bottom right).

Not all discarded electronics are initially wasted. Prior to becoming e-waste, some electronics regain value and meaning through secondhand exchange. Since the 1990s, internet sites like eBay have facilitated the sale of secondhand electronics from one person to another. More recently, it has become increasingly common for people to buy, sell, or trade electronics on social media platforms. Conducting digital garbology on social media makes it possible to reveal patterns in the types of electronics that continue to circulate and some potential explanations for why these electronics postpone becoming e-waste.

Triangulating Waste with Ethnography and GIS

Digital garbologists implementing GIS can track waste produced across the life history of electronics in time and space, addressing a need to understand how e-waste can be managed or even prevented in some cases. By leveraging the locations of landfills, recycling centers, repair shops, and more, GIS can be used to help determine or predict which locations are most likely to be affected adversely by ground waste contamination and other issues associated with hazardous waste disposal and the life history of electronics.

Paired with ethnographic methods, digital garbologists can provide deeper insights into how people are affected by their proximity to hazardous waste and what strategies they are already using to cope with or contest polluting activities. Waste audits and garbological surveys can be used to estimate the amount of e-waste in landfills (Rathje et al. 1992), and these distributions can be analyzed and mapped out in a GIS. Then the results can be used to create a baseline understanding of e-waste contamination rates in landfills.

A growing number of GIS practitioners and scholars have developed ways to incorporate qualitative data and multimedia into GIS. Cope and Elwood (2009, 172–173) describe Qualitative GIS as a body of methods and practices that incorporates reflexivity upon the processes, products, and politics of any research and a multifaceted engagement with GIS as a technology for storing and representing spatial information, as social and political practice, and as a socially constituted approach for knowing and making knowledge. Within a Qualitative GIS, data generated from ethnographic observations can be stored and analyzed using spatial techniques.

Spatially enabled ethnographic fieldnotes can be recorded easily using the Collector for ArcGIS mobile phone application and ArcGIS Online. Data collected in the field can be combined with online resources, including base maps, demographic data, geocoding tools, and interactive web maps (fig. 4). Interactive web maps, called Story Maps, allow for various types of visual media, such as YouTube videos, websites, and slides, to be viewed and shared alongside geospatial data sets. While a traditional GIS is optimized for the collection of spatial and quantitative data, utilizing Qualitative GIS throughout a site suitability assessment enables the digital ethnographer to communicate findings by overlaying conventional GIS data with ethnographic observations, images, audio, video, and other resources.

Figure 4. “The Story of Our Electronics, a Story Map,” by Gideon Singer (2017). For more information, see this interactive story map.

Participatory research plays a key role in rendering the aforementioned methods and frameworks practical and meaningful. Information communication technologies have increased the ability for citizens, experts, and activists around the world to participate in the mapping of waste and other ecological issues. Qualitative GIS enables individuals and researchers to attach multimedia and detailed descriptions to geospatial data points. For example, smart phones and online mapping applications have enabled citizens of the Czech Republic to report illegal dumping sites across the country (Kubásek 2013, 2014). In southern Italy, De Feo and colleagues (2014) leveraged GIS to allow authorities, technicians, and citizens to share resources. The data collected from participatory models are vital to any modeling or interpolation of existing illegal dumping locations. These geographic information systems can help municipalities and rate payers to reduce the economic costs of cleaning up illegal dump sites, mitigate damage to human health, wildlife, and the environment, and facilitate the rehabilitation and monitoring of illegal dump sites (De Feo et al. 2014; Kubásek 2014).

Applying Digital Garbology

Digital garbologists play an important role in illuminating waste produced in the “black box” of electronic objects and digital infrastructure (Goddard 2015). Both research and activism are needed to illuminate where waste is produced within the life history of electronics, who bears the brunt of the waste, and what policies are needed to manage e-waste in the future ethically and sustainably. Digital garbology has an important role to play in supporting community-based actions such as organizing repair cafés, petitioning local governments to fund waste and recycling education programs, and drawing attention to blind spots in environmental, economic, and social discourse concerning waste produced by renewable energy and digital technologies.

Here are additional resources for those interested in the applications of digital garbology.

Repair Café

The knowledge and ability to repair electronics has a significant effect on the total amount of waste produced by the life history of electronics. As of 2020, there are over two thousand repair cafés across the world. Anyone can bring a broken device or appliance to one of these repair cafés and learn how to repair or mend their objects for free alongside other volunteers.1

The Repair Association (United States) and the Right to Repair (European Union)

Digital garbology, as guided by the life history framework, reinforces the notion that repair and reuse have important roles to play in slowing the production of e-waste. The right to repair consumer electronics has become a contentious issue unifying consumers and activists who seek to extend the working life of their electronic devices. In April 2018, a US federal appeals court sentenced an e-waste recycler who had built a sizable business out of refurbishing and recycling electronic waste to federal prison for 15 months. The court ruled that he had infringed $700,000 on Microsoft Corporation by making “restore disks” to extend computers’ lives (Washington Post 2018). The disks, which contained freely downloadable software, enabled him to restore the Microsoft Operating System on refurbished devices that would have otherwise been processed for recycling. The possibilities of repair and reuse are truncated by rigid intellectual property (IP) laws and regulatory regimes such as the NTCRS (National Television Computer Recycling Scheme) in Australia, which privilege recycling.

In Europe and the United States, activists have co-organized to advocate for policies that require product designs to incorporate repairability. The right to repair movement has recently had success in Europe, and American activists helped to put forth right to repair bills in over twenty states in 2019. In addition to slowing rates of e-waste production, repair activists also advocate for the protection of independent repair shops and businesses.

Further Reading

  • Gabrys, Jennifer. 2011. Digital Rubbish: A Natural History of Electronics. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.
  • Horst, Heather A., and Daniel Miller, eds. 2012. Digital Anthropology. London: Berg.
  • Lepawsky, Josh. 2018. Reassembling Rubbish: Worlding Electronic Waste. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
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