History of Tech Recycling
What do you do with old tech? In the earliest times, old technology took care of itself. Wooden wagon wheels rotted away and metal plows rusted and broke, could be melted down, or were just left to the elements. This system worked for a few thousand years, right up until the 1950s when technology really started exploding.
Today we’ve got enough tech garbage that we had to give it a name – e-waste. This title encompasses everything from televisions to phones or laptops to printers. Any old technology could fall under the category of e-waste, but that wide net isn’t why there’s so much of it.
It’s estimated that e-waste is the fastest-growing waste category, clocking in at about 40 million tons each year. If the current rate doesn’t change, we could be churning out 120 million tons of e-waste each year by 2025. If we use the 2017 numbers from a PACE/UN report, we’re already generating enough waste annually to equal the total weight of all the aircraft on the planet.
In addition to the sheer volume of garbage we’re dealing with, the reason for concern has to do with the ingredients that make up modern electronics. Hazardous materials like lead, arsenic, nickel, cadmium, and mercury are regular parts of our tech hardware, and just throwing them in the ground can create a poisonous problem for the regions hosting these landfills.
The production of our hardware also involves processes that suck up valuable resources that we might one day wish we had preserved. For example, the production of your standard desktop computer requires 530 pounds of fossil fuels, 48 pounds of chemicals, and 1.5 tons of water, much of which could be avoided if we employ recycling and salvage techniques.
The topic of e-waste and related recycling efforts offers dozens of different diversions and multiple disciplines, but for our current purpose, we’re just going to walk you through some significant moments in e-waste practices and legislation, to give you an idea of how the attitude toward this growing problem has grabbed the attention of lawmakers around the world.
The Dawn of Man Until 1976
For most of history, old tech just got thrown away. No rules, no worries. We just took it to the curb, the bin, or abandoned it. Until the 1950s this wasn’t so bad, but the advent of television introduced cathode ray tubes (CRTs) that were filled with lead. Unfortunately, we dumped these indiscriminately for almost two decades before we did anything about it.
1970s and 1980s
In 1976 the EPA is only about a decade old, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) is passed. To date this is still the main piece of federal legislation governing solid waste, although its intent was to regulate the disposal of CRT monitors. The intent was good, but one side-effect of the RCRA was in increase of E-waste dumping on foreign nations.
In the summer of 1986, a cargo freighter called the Khian Sea from Pennsylvania headed out to sea looking for a site to dump 14,000 tons of ash from incinerated e-waste. When nobody would take it, the ash was eventually dumped in the open ocean. Because of this flashpoint event, the Basel Convention was passed in Switzerland and now prohibits nations from transporting their e-waste to other countries or dumping it in the ocean.
In the early 1990s Switzerland begins the regulation of domestic e-waste; The African nations draw up the Bamako Convention in 1991, which used much of the same language as the Basel Convention, but was focused on the Basel Convention’s failure to protect developing countries, primarily in Africa. The Bamako Convention came into force in 1998.
In the mid to late 1990s, a number of European countries begin regulating e-waste disposal. In 1992, The Basel Ban is enacted by 175 countries (not including the U.S.) and prohibits dumping waste on lesser-developed nations.
California led the U.S. becoming the first state to enact laws regarding the proper disposal of E-waste, by passing the Electronic Waste Recycling Act of 2003. Other states follow. For example, Massachusetts made it illegal to put CRTs into landfills, and Minnesota banned all E-waste from landfills in 2007.
The states aren’t the only bodies taking this seriously, as manufacturers like Sharp, Panasonic, Samsung, and Coca-Cola combine their efforts to create the Electronic Manufacturers Recycling Management Company in 2008.
A decade later and states continue to make their own efforts to regulate the production and dumping of e-waste. Twenty-five states each have enacted their own e-waste legislation, and all but one of those put the responsibility for funding the recycling efforts directly on the manufacturer.
Most recently, in December of 2019 House Resolution-3559 was introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives. HR-3559 forbids the exportation of tech recycling and e-waste to countries that could use that hardware to undermine our national security.
On its face this piece of legislation is about protecting the U.S. from espionage, but it also has the effect of diverting e-waste recycling away from countries like Russia and China. This could encourage domestic e-waste recycling efforts or incentivize the establishment of new e-waste transport routes into countries more philosophically aligned with our national interests.
It’s a dynamic world, and the direction of e-waste trends and channels could change overnight. Rest assured, CDR Global is staying on top of the developments so we can keep our customers ahead of the curve on the most effective ways to buy or sell in this competitive market.
If you’d like to see how we can help you improve your bottom line while you upgrade, modify, or just clean up your IT system, get in touch with one of our specialists and we’ll show you how it’s done.