Mining for Gold to Save the Environment? The Political Ecology of Global e-Waste Recycling

EPA Grant Number: FP917346
Title: Mining for Gold to Save the Environment? The Political Ecology of Global e-Waste Recycling
Investigators: Knapp, Freyja Liselle
Institution: University of California - Berkeley , Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Lab
EPA Project Officer: Zambrana, Jose
Project Period: August 1, 2011 through July 31, 2014
Project Amount: $126,000
RFA: STAR Graduate Fellowships (2011) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: Academic Fellowships , Fellowship - Emerging Environmental Approaches and Challenges: Social Sciences


Discarded electronic consumer goods, e-waste, has become a significant concern within the international environmental community due to its extreme toxicity and uneven geographies of environmental burden. Contemporary approaches to governing e-waste in developing countries use a public-private partnership model. This project will critically examine how complex agendas and goals from corporate, environmental, government and public stakeholders intersect and exert influence within the context of global environmental problem-solving efforts. This study offers a unique and informative case study that bridges environmental health sciences, environmental social sciences, international relations, global governance and policy studies, thus contributing key lessons for multi-stakeholder partnerships addressing complex socio-environmental problems.


E-waste, containing both toxic chemicals and precious metals, is a complex hybrid of hazard and commodity. This presents significant institutional challenges for the global and on-the-ground governance of e-waste and requires a social science approach. This project applies a political ecology framework that will explicitly address the physical, political and socio-economic dynamics of e-waste science, e-waste trade and “commodity production” to examine the relationship between the hazard-commodity nature of e-waste and the challenges of international environmental governance. The study will take a critical ethnographic approach in examining the processes at work and discourses leveraged in international environmental decision-making.

Expected Results:

The problems of e-waste are made complex by the overlapping issues of environmental health, technology, labor, poverty, international trade and globalization. The strength of a political ecology framework is that all of these intersecting aspects of e-waste are explicitly addressed through analyses of the production and use of science, the physical and social origins of the e-waste problem and the multifaceted impacts of global e-waste flows. This research project will provide a nuanced investigation into the distribution of benefits and costs of e-waste “mining” across multiple and interrelated scales. It will address a critical research gap, both in e-waste studies, and in the international environmental governance literature, by focusing on the emergence and effectiveness of public-private partnerships at addressing complex environmental problems while balancing public goods and private profits.

Potential to Further Environmental / Human Health Protection

As the public-private partnership model of environmental problem-solving continues to grow in popularity, studies examining the performance of such an approach are critical for producing sustainable solutions to pressing environmental concerns. If multi-stakeholder processes do not adequately address the constellation of needs and interests among the diverse players, results may be modest at best. This study will illuminate how solutions are constructed in this type of partnership, providing key lessons for future public-private collaborations.

Supplemental Keywords:

environmental health, public-private partnership, e-waste, hazardous waste, mining, precious metals, international development, science studies

Progress and Final Reports:

  • 2012
  • 2013
  • Final