The hazards inside the tube

Junked analog TVs carry toxic material into the landfills

December 23, 2007|By Chris Emery | Chris Emery,Sun reporter

The Romeros' long relationship with their television ended on a gray, drizzly morning at the Cockeysville recycling center.

Dina Romero carried the small TV into a metal shipping container and placed it in a pile of other TVs destined for end-of-life dismantling in New Jersey. "My husband bought a plasma TV, so we don't need this one anymore," the Cockeysville resident said.

The 13-inch set had served the family well for 22 years, but its time had come - just as it will for millions of analog TVs as the United States moves into a new digital era.

With U.S. broadcasters slated to switch to all-digital transmissions on Feb. 17, 2009 - and millions of viewers already replacing their older sets with high-definition TVs - American consumers are creating what some critics see as an environmental disaster.

Will they bring old sets to responsible recycling centers as the Romeros did - or just toss them out? Environmentalists and TV makers disagree on the answer.

Environmental groups worry that millions of unwanted TVs and the toxic chemicals they contain could wind up in U.S. landfills or be shipped to poor countries to be disposed of improperly.

Those sets can contain lead, mercury, barium, cadmium and other dangerous substances.

"There is going to be a huge spike in the number of TVs going into the waste stream," said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a nonprofit that encourages recycling of consumer electronics.

TV makers acknowledge that new digital sets are selling rapidly - they estimate that 36 percent of American homes will have one by year's end - but question whether consumers will toss out their old sets immediately.

"The purchase of a new television has little or no relationship to the disposal of an old TV," said Parker Brugge, senior director and environmental counsel for the Consumer Electronics Association.

All parties agree that it's hard to determine how many sets Americans will dispose of during the next few years.

But two forces threaten to push older sets into the grave: HDTVs are rapidly replacing analog sets in U.S. homes, and the FCC will require U.S. broadcasters to stop transmitting analog signals over the air in 2009.

Owners of TVs connected to cable, satellite or fiber-optic services don't have to worry in the short run - their providers will continue transmitting analog signals.

But 38 million U.S. households have at least one set that relies on over-the-air, analog transmissions, according to a report by the Government Accounting Office. About 21 million of those - 19 percent of total households - depend completely on over-the-air broadcasts that will disappear.

Owners of these sets will have to do something, or their screens will go blank. One possibility: buying a converter box that translates digital signals, at a cost of about $50 to $70. Another is switching to cable or satellite service, a major, continuing expense. The third is buying a new digital TV - HD or standard definition.

The federal government has set aside $1.5 billion for vouchers worth $40 each to help families purchase converters (with a limit of two per household). But no one knows how many will convert and how many will replace their sets, creating an orphan TV in the process.

"It used to be that people would just demote their old TVs to somewhere else in the house, but I don't think that's the case here," said Kyle.

"This new technology is driving a new waste stream."

As much as 2.2 million tons of electronic equipment entered the U.S. waste stream in 2005, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

Only 3.5 million of the 24 million to 26 million TVs that went out of use that year were recycled, according to the EPA. The rest went into storage or were tossed into landfills or incinerators - despite the hazardous materials inside.

The glass cathode ray tubes and circuit boards in older TVs contain an average of 4 to 8 pounds of lead - a potent neurotoxin that can cause brain damage in children.

TV screens and tubes also contain other toxic substances such as barium and cadmium. TV wiring is often insulated with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and flame retardents, which have been linked to illness in children.

To increase recycling, Kyle's group urges states to require manufacturers to take back and recycle a certain percentage of the electronics they sell.

Minnesota recently passed a law requiring manufacturers to recycle the equivalent of 60 percent of the weight of products they sell there each year, despite lobbying against the measure by TV manufacturers.

Eight other states, including Maryland, have passed legislation mandating electronics recycling - but each has taken its own approach.

Manufacturers prefer California's model, which charges consumers an advance recycling fee of up to $10 when they purchase a product.

"We feel that the responsibility for recycling should be shared," said Brugge. "Right now, the trend is to place the entire burden upon manufacturers."

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