From the Series: Topology as Method
I sat one morning in Mr. Kamal’s plush apartment in Delhi as he described to me how his company’s import-export business traded scrap metal from Angola to India.1 Long-distance trade was a contentious process and Mr. Kamal explained that disputes were the order of the day. These disputes arose for many reasons but revolved chiefly around two interconnected ones: the flux in prices of metals over time as well as through space, and the inherently uneven composition of scrap metal.
As recovered material from discarded and already used or damaged products, or by-products or rejects of manufacturing processes, scrap metal emerges as a particular kind of commodity, as a product that has already been; as discarded, waste or by-product; and traded as potential raw material. Scrap metal commodities therefore tend to congeal and embody simultaneously the various temporalities of the life cycle of a product. Trading these commodities requires the negotiation of these simultaneous temporalities and their various material effects. These could include a particular combination and composition of metals that makes up an already manufactured item, the presence of other metallic and non-metallic contaminants, the presence of other materials like insulation and coatings, the presence of attached parts, the presence of dirt, oil, and other traces of use and degeneration. As can be imagined, these effects are compounded when scrap metal from various sources is aggregated for shipping. Aggregations could potentially include heterogeneous machine and metal parts, or metals that have been shredded, compacted, burned for extraction, and so forth. This material diversity points to the specific characteristics of scrap metal that are relevant for its trade across long distances—the property of inconstancy, wherein a single piece may show variation in wear and tear, and variability, in that an aggregation or a shipment as a whole may consist of heterogeneous elements.
Mr. Kamal illustrated: “Aluminum scrap always contains some amount of iron. Say about 5 percent, but if prices have changed, the buyer might claim that there is 10 percent iron in the shipment. Now, if I am where the buyer is, I can say okay, show me. But if I am far away, there are companies that do this [examine the material and resolve disputes], but you have to trust them completely.” Mr. Kamal’s statement suggests that traders not only take these characteristics of inconstancy and variability for granted, but that they make these characteristics the fulcrum around which they might structure their profit margins and the negotiation of disputes.
As a way to manage these kinds of disputes and negotiations, Mr. Kamal shared that his strategy was to “go strictly according to scrap specifications” set by the Institute for Scrap Recycling Industries, Inc. (ISRI), a U.S.-based organization that is a consortium of various scrap trading companies. The “Scrap Specifications Circular” is published by ISRI and includes a list of scrap materials that are codified according to particular criteria. For instance, “talc” is code for “post-consumer aluminum can scrap.” The description reads: “Shall consist of old aluminum food and/or beverage cans. The material is to be free of other scrap metals, foil, tin cans, plastic bottles, paper, glass, and other non-metallic items. Variations to this specification should be agreed upon prior to shipment between the buyer and seller” (ISRI 2018, 7). The circular is filled with terms and number codes that refer to particular compositions of scrap materials. Some of the categories are arranged around a larger number of specific criteria than others. The circular states that the specifications “are constructed to represent the quality or composition of the materials bought and sold in the industry . . . are internationally accepted and are used throughout the world to trade the various commodities” (ISRI 2018, 2). Specifications are routinely added, removed, and updated through public or member petitions.
Scrap specifications seem to be doing at least two things simultaneously. First, they demarcate material assemblages like talc so that heterogeneous and inconstant scrap materials may form a unit in name as they travel from seller to buyer.2 The constitution of the unit through naming may transcend the effects of metric distance as it moves through space: the unit remains or at least aims to remain consistent through travel. Secondly, as found in the description of talc stated above, and clearly iterated in the preface, any “deviation[s] from the standard specifications . . . should be mutually agreed to and so stipulated in writing by the parties to the transactions” (ISRI 2018, 2). Here, the codes recognize and include within them the potential for variation by making acceptable ranges of variation themselves subject to negotiation. Through this dual operation, the specifications constitute continuity in variation, first by constituting units of consistency that may traverse distances, and secondly by recognizing the potential for variation that is communicable and recognized through agreement.
This dual functioning allows for specifications to chart out possible “globalizing” scrap spatialities. Drawing on John Law and Annemarie Mol’s (2001) discussion of the global spaces of technoscience, scrap specifications enact an alternating pulsation of the intersection of “network” and “fluid” spaces: the former through the cohering actions of the unit, and the latter through the variation within the unit produced by each iteration of agreement. Through these operations, the specifications seem to shift the temporality of negotiation from post-travel disputations to pre-travel agreements. The specifications thus provide a ground on which variation and its various forms may be articulated as agreement. Through this articulation, a question of variation may then be transposed to that of valuation, that is, through agreement, questions of customs payments, price shifts, and profit may be negotiated.
1. Name has been changed.
2. While commodities are widely understood as portable, the logistics and modalities related to their travel are often dependent on certain material effects. For instance, some agricultural commodities foreground issues of spoilage. Also depending on material effects are the
possibilities of the degree of abstraction that units may provide (Cronon 1991).
I thank the “Reimagining Indian Ocean Worlds” Mellon Research Initiative at UC Davis for their support in conducting this research.
Cronon, William. 1991. Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West. New York: W. W. Norton.
ISRI (Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries). 2018. “Scrap Specifications Circular: Guidelines for Nonferrous Scrap, Ferrous Scrap, Glass Cullet, Paper Stock, Plastic Scrap, Electronics Scrap, Tire Scrap.” Washington, D.C.: ISRI.
Law, John, and Annemarie Mol. 2001. “Situating Technoscience: An Inquiry into Spatialities.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 19, no. 5: 609–21.