Accepted paper:

When excess trumps efficiency: recycling networks, public policies and the growth imperative in contemporary China


Yvan Schulz (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the recent transformation of China’s recycling industry with a focus on discarded e-devices. By analysing state-sanctioned “waste management” and comparing it with other forms of engagement, I wish to demonstrate that excess trumps efficiency and appears as the true rationale.

Paper long abstract:

Until a few years ago, small businesses dominated the trade and transformation of discarded electrical and electronic devices in China. The development of this sector owed much to the private entrepreneurship's vitality during the 1990s and 2000s and was little affected by state regulation. This situation changed in the early 2010s, however, when large companies partly took over with the help of the central government. Understandably, institutional experts support the new, "formal" system of "waste management" designed to "solve the e-waste problem". They do so in large part by demonising the "informal" sector. Claims that the latter lacks efficiency are often heard in public settings, but in face-to-face conversations experts readily acknowledge that large companies struggle to reach the levels of efficiency characteristic of their competitors. The goal of replacing a given system with a less efficient one could seem absurd if it was not for the alleged need to preserve the environment, that serves as a routine justification. Upon closer analysis, however, excess appears as the main rationale behind this transformation. Though it is sometimes portrayed as a regrettable side effect of economic growth, wastefulness (a form of excess) also characterises highly industrialised countries and therefore testifies to "development". Among other factors, the destruction of vast amounts of stuff currently being promoted by "waste management" in China indicates a willingness to embrace — and not just puts up with — excess. Increased efficiency may improve technological complexity, material abundance and interconnectedness, but only excess can turn the "China dream" into reality.

panel P41
Efficiency and excess