Breaking Through Developing Multidisciplinary Solutions to Global Grand Challenges

Local and Global Perspectives on E-Waste: Integrating the Humanities, Social Science, and Engineering to Examine the Life Cycle of Electronics


H. Kory Cooper
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Rayvon Fouche
Director and Associate Professor of American Studies
Carol Handwerker
Reinhardt Schuhmann Jr. Professor of Materials Engineering
Ningning Nicole Kong
Assistant Professor of Library Science, GIS Specialist
Shannon McMullen
Assistant Professor of Electronic and Time-Based Art and American Studies
Amy Van Epps
Associate Professor of Library Science
Laura Zanotti
Associate Professor of Anthropology
Fu Zhao
Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering

Project Summary

The magnitude of the electronic waste problem nearly defies comprehension. Millions upon millions of electronic devices (computers, cell phones, LCD televisions, etc.) have been produced globally in the last few years. Many of these devices contain materials known to have serious negative impacts on human health. As electronics come to the end of their life, or are simply replaced with newer models, the amount of e-waste continues to grow at an alarming rate. With a research team composed of faculty and students, this project integrates Humanities, Social Science, and Engineering to examine the human behavioral and cultural aspects of this substantial environmental and ethical problem, this project aims to: (1) provide an overview of the current state of the e-waste problem from both a global and local perspective, (2) develop artifact life-histories for electronic devices that will both assist in identifying avenues for future cross-disciplinary research, and (3) creatively engage communities in finding solutions to the e-waste problem.

The team has constructed a Geographic Information System (GIS) e-waste tool to examine local data and behaviors, hired a graduate and undergraduate students to assist with the project, created an online survey tool for data collection, and incorporated aspects of the project into a course on “Environment and Culture” that resulted in e-waste themed community projects. The team has worked toward a multi-media exhibition on the electronic life cycle, co-authored journal articles, and a GIS for use in analyzing the geography and spatial relationships between the human and non-human actants in the e-waste life cycle.

Principal Investigator Bio

H. Kory Cooper
Assistant Professor of Anthropology

Professor Cooper studies innovation and culture change using a behavioral archeology framework. One of his major research areas is Pre-Contact native copper innovation among Arctic, Subarctic, and Northwest Coast Hunter-Gatherers, and the adoption of trade metal in these regions following contact with Europeans. This research is ongoing as well as his investigations of historic period metals and metallurgy in the far northwest. Cooper has applied a behavioral archeology approach in studying the e-waste problem as part of this Mellon-funded pilot project.


Project Promo Video

Policies for Progress Conference Presentation (10/29/15)

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