Science and Engineering Ethics

, Volume 23, Issue 2, pp 591–622 | Cite as

Engineers’ Responsibilities for Global Electronic Waste: Exploring Engineering Student Writing Through a Care Ethics Lens

  • Ryan C. Campbell
  • Denise Wilson
Original Paper


This paper provides an empirically informed perspective on the notion of responsibility using an ethical framework that has received little attention in the engineering-related literature to date: ethics of care. In this work, we ground conceptual explorations of engineering responsibility in empirical findings from engineering student’s writing on the human health and environmental impacts of “backyard” electronic waste recycling/disposal. Our findings, from a purposefully diverse sample of engineering students in an introductory electrical engineering course, indicate that most of these engineers of tomorrow associated engineers with responsibility for the electronic waste (e-waste) problem in some way. However, a number of responses suggested attempts to deflect responsibility away from engineers towards, for example, the government or the companies for whom engineers work. Still other students associated both engineers and non-engineers with responsibility, demonstrating the distributed/collective nature of responsibility that will be required to achieve a solution to the global problem of excessive e-waste. Building upon one element of a framework for care ethics adopted from the wider literature, these empirical findings are used to facilitate a preliminary, conceptual exploration of care-ethical responsibility within the context of engineering and e-waste recycling/disposal. The objective of this exploration is to provide a first step toward understanding how care-ethical responsibility applies to engineering. We also hope to seed dialogue within the engineering community about its ethical responsibilities on the issue. We conclude the paper with a discussion of its implications for engineering education and engineering ethics that suggests changes for educational policy and the practice of engineering.


Ethics of care Feminist ethics Electronic waste Electronics recycling Engineering education Engineering ethics 



The authors wish to express their sincere gratitude to Dr. Ken Yasuhara at the University of Washington Center for Engineering Learning & Teaching (CELT) for his invaluable feedback and encouragement throughout the development of this manuscript. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0909817. Partial support for this research came from a Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development research infrastructure grant, R24 HD042828, to the Center for Studies in Demography & Ecology at the University of Washington.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Research Involving Human Participants and/or Animals

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. This article does not contain any studies with animals performed by any of the authors.

Informed Consent

Informed consent was obtained from all individual participants included in the study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Individual Ph.D. Program, Interdisciplinary Programs, The Graduate SchoolUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA
  2. 2.Department of Electrical EngineeringUniversity of WashingtonSeattleUSA

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