Sustainability | Ecotrope

Recycling The Televisions of Super Bowls Past

Ecotrope | Feb. 1, 2012 11:01 p.m. | Updated: July 24, 2013 8:13 a.m.

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The CRT glass tubes inside these old televisions is hazardous and needs to be handled with care.

The CRT glass tubes inside these old televisions are hazardous and need to be handled with care.

 

In the 15 years Jeff Wilson has been in the electronics business, there’s always been a spike in television sales before the Super Bowl from people wanting a better view of the big game. A flat screen, a bigger flat screen, a flat screen with surround sound and Blu-ray…

As the store manager for Best Buy in Clackamas, Wilson doesn’t get a breather after the holiday rush.

“We go right into preparing for our home theater campaign,” he said. “We see people start looking for a TV over Christmas, and asking what’s going to be on sale for the Super Bowl. Then they wait for the deals.”

The television is an icon of the Super Bowl. Television manufacturers offer discounts. Retailers push financing and delivery deals. And party hosts flock to them, looking for ways to impress their friends.

“We make it a good time to buy TVs,” Wilson said. “You have so many people watching the same thing at one time. Even people who aren’t football fans will go to a Super Bowl party.”

This year, the National Retail Federation estimates 5.1 million people – or about 5 percent of those planning to watch the Patriots v. Giants – will buy a new television specifically for game day.

So, what happens to all the old televisions that are now looking puny, low-definition and boxy?

Workers at a Sims Recycling Solutions center sort scrap metal from e-waste. Notice their protective gear. It

Workers at a Sims Recycling Solutions center sort scrap metal from e-waste. Notice their protective gear. It

 

Unfortunately, the afterlife for the televisions of Super Bowls past is murky. Because the cathode-ray tubes inside the older, boxy TVs each contain four pounds of toxic lead, they’re banned from landfills in the U.S.

The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that while 27.2 million TVs are ready to be trashed, only 4.6 million of them – 17 percent – will get collected for recycling. And even some of those have a sketchy future ahead of them.

There are numerous companies that will collect the televisions for recycling. But big concerns remain about how, exactly, the toxic materials are handled. The lead inside cathode-ray tube glass can be safely extracted by a smelter. But that costs money, and it often doesn’t happen. It’s cheaper to separate the valuable metal inside the TVs from the toxic material in countries without environmental and worker safety laws. And there’s the rub.

As Jim Puckett, executive director of the e-waste advocacy group Basel Action Network told NPR’s Fresh Air:

“The dirty little secret is that when you take [your electronic waste] to a recycler, instead of throwing it in a trashcan, about 80 percent of that material, very quickly, finds itself on a container ship going to a country like China, Nigeria, India, Vietnam, Pakistan — where very dirty things happen to it.”

Greenpeace put a tracker on one television in the United Kingdom to see what happened after it was given to a recycler.

The Environmental Protection Agency tries to track (not stop) exports of cathode-ray tubes (aka CRTs), but according to the Government Accountability Office, companies can “easily circumvent” the rules requiring them to inform the EPA.

“GAO posed as foreign buyers of broken CRTs in Hong Kong, India, Pakistan, and other countries, and 43 U.S. companies expressed willingness to export these items. Some of the companies, including ones that publicly tout their exemplary environmental practices, were willing to export CRTs in apparent violation of the CRT rule.”

A Minnesota recycler got nabbed for trying to sneak old computer monitors out of the Port of Seattle last year by mislabeling them “plastic scrap.”

Oregon and Washington both have e-waste programs that make electronics manufacturers pay for the proper disposal of their products. The states have designated e-waste collectors, and they monitor authorized recyclers to make sure things like old televisions get disassembled and recycled safely.

But guess what. Minnesota has an e-waste program too.

That doesn’t necessarily end the risk of rogue recyclers shipping your old TV off to a developing country, where it could poison someone. You’ve got to make sure it gets into the right hands.

There aren’t many federal rules governing the e-waste export business in the U.S., said . State programs that hold manufacturers responsible for the downstream path of e-waste have been multiplying over the past few years, but there are no laws saying a company can’t export old TVs and their toxic cathode-ray tubes overseas.

Steve Skurnac, president of Sims Recycling Solutions, the world’s largest e-waste recycler, said responsible recyclers can dismantle old televisions by hand to separate the valuable parts – copper, steel, aluminum and circuitry – from the glass tube inside. The glass with lead can go to a lead smelter that extracts the lead from the glass, he said, or some companies that manufacture glass tubes for TVs will take the leaded glass for feedstock.

But the problem lies in the cost of doing the right thing with the leaded glass, he said. Some private recyclers don’t take TVs and computer monitors because of the costs involved in recycling the tubes.

“It costs more to recycle it than the value of the glass itself,” said Skurnac. “So, in circumstances where we’re providing glass or TV recycling service, we will typically have to charge for the recycling service. Or, in a lot of states the manufacturers are required to arrange for the recycling and pay for the recycling of products they’ve put in the marketplace.

“Overall, this is going to cost you x pennies a pound to do the recycling. But if someone else is going to put it in an ocean container and offers to pay you for it rather than charging you, you’re obviously going to want to go with the guy who pays you.”

But you don’t know what’s going to happen to it after that. The bottom line is be careful about who gets your old TV, he said. The people collecting your television – be it Goodwill, the Salvation Army or the Boy Scouts – may not be the one doing the recycling. If you aren’t sure, you should ask who they’re working with.

The safest bet is to make sure the recycler is E-steward or R2 certified (more on these certification programs later).

Here’s a general guide to recycling your old television – and other e-waste.

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