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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Toxic Television Disposal

Air Date: Week of

The switch to digital TV in the US will make millions of existing television sets obsolete and these sets are loaded with heavy metals and other toxic parts. Many worry that America is not prepared for the coming wave of hazardous electronic garbage. Living On Earth’s Cynthia Graber reports.


KNOY: It's Living on Earth. I'm Laura Knoy. It appears we're on the verge of another television revolution. In just a few years many of us may have to throw away our current analog sets in favor of newer digital technology, which the electronics industry promises will make our favorite shows leap off the screen with lifelike clarity. The difference could be as dramatic as the advent of color TV about 40 years ago. This shift may create dramatic consequences for the environment as well. Millions of televisions could become obsolete and get thrown away. And, as Living on Earth's Cynthia Graber reports, TV sets are almost as toxic as some TV programs.

(Rock music revs up)

GRABER: The Best Buy superstore in Rockville, Maryland, has dozens of televisions on display, including several of the new high-definition digital sets. HDTVs deliver a dramatic viewing improvement, but one salesman here says so far they've been too costly to catch on.

(To salesman) How are the HDTVs selling?

SALESMAN: A couple a month. Not too many, you know, but it's going to pick up over the years.

GRABER: In just a few years buyers may have no choice. The FCC has picked 2006 as the target for turning America completely digital. Stations will stop transmitting their current analog signals. It's a controversial move, and it's beginning to alarm the agencies that regulate America's landfills and municipal waste incinerators. When the switch occurs, more than 250 million televisions could become obsolete.

(To salesman) What do you think will happen to all the old televisions?

SALESMAN: I think, you know, they're going to pile them up in some junk yard somewhere. I mean, if anybody wants to give away their TV, you know, come look me up. I'm willing to have a few TVs in my living room. (Laughs)

GRABER: The problem is that once the digital revolution begins, nobody will really want your old analog sets. Converter boxes might be able to squeeze some extra life from your current television, but throughout the country officials are worried about a wave of electronic garbage.


PELLOQUIN: So we're just going to go through the steps now to completely de-manufacture this, and this one will be 100 percent recycled. So, first step, he's going to remove the rear cover.


GRABER: Dick Pelloquin has been repairing television sets in a wooden warehouse near Spencer, Massachusetts, for 27 years. Now, he's become one of the first repairmen to enter the world of TV recycling.

PELLOQUIN: I just happen to be an individual who's been recycling for years. It made me upset to throw away anything that looked like it might be usable later on for something else, much to my mom's dismay.


PELLOQUIN: This one is built like a battleship.

GRABER: Screws are scattered around the workshop floor here. Large wooden bins hold various components, the printed circuit boards, wire with thick plastic coating, rubber, batteries from remote controls. Mr. Pelloquin and his assistants reuse as many parts as possible or sell them to other repair shops. Anything they can't use is shipped off to be melted down for raw materials.

(Parts being moved)

PELLOQUIN: The assembly that he's just removed contains copper wire -- the printed circuit boards. I see some aluminum panels, some mild iron or steel panels.

GRABER: Mr. Pelloquin’s not just trying to conserve natural resources. He's also trying to keep toxic parts out of the wastestream. Soldering contains lead and circuit boards have heavy metals such as cadmium and mercury. In the landfill, these metals could contaminate nearby groundwater. And in incinerators, they end up in smokestack emissions and in the ash.

(Parts being moved; drilling)

PELLOQUIN: And here's what you've been waiting for. We're down to the CRT itself.

GRABER: Perhaps the most dangerous part is the picture tube, known as the CRT, the cathode-ray tube. The glass is loaded with lead to protect viewers from radiation. A typical set contains more than four pounds of lead. Dick Pelloquin and his staff of ten can disassemble 20 televisions a day. This labor-intensive process underscores just how difficult it may be to recycle the 250 million sets in the United States. Some environmentalists believe it won't be long before cities are overwhelmed, and they don't feel the electronics industry is doing its part.

SMITH: If we don't do something quickly, we're going to be faced with an amazing and enormous problem. Right now we have a situation where a producer makes a product, sells it, makes a profit, and then forgets about it.

GRABER: Ted Smith is the executive director of the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition in San Jose, California. He believes the American electronics industry should have to do what the auto industry is being forced to do in Europe: take back their products at the end of their life for recycling.

SMITH: And if they do that, it's going to cause them to think a lot more seriously about some of these disposal problems and the cost of disposal and the toxic issues involved. Right now they don't have to worry about that since they're not responsible for it.

GRABER: The electronics industry opposes the notion of take-back regulations. Jeff Joseph is the spokesman for the Consumer Electronics Association, a trade group.

JOSEPH: I think there is some danger there, when we talk about government regulations, and industry assuming the cost of that. I think what we'd rather see is voluntary programs in which manufacturers work with local communities to provide solutions. Some of our manufacturers work with local communities to recycle the product, to redistribute used product to low-income and disadvantaged neighborhoods. So I think we'd rather see that sort of solution than some broad government mandate.


GRABER: One venture that the electronics industry has encouraged is the start-up of a picture tube recycling facility. This is Envirocycle in Halstead, Pennsylvania. Here, the leaded glass from picture tubes is sorted, broken down, and prepared for melting. Greg Voorhees, vice president of Envirocycle, stands amid hundreds of dusty gray tubes, which will be sliced into pieces by a six-foot saw.

VOORHEES: So all we need to do now is separate the panel glass from the funnel glass and the neck glass, so you have a frit glass that connects the panel and funnel. And that's all separated up here using some saws that we've developed.


GRABER: Envirocycle is one of two recyclers in the U.S. that handle the glass from cathode-ray tubes. They started in 1991, when the CRT industry asked them to recycle scrap glass from factory rejects. The glass is valuable because it melts at lower temperatures and reduces energy needs. Now that the process is proven to work, Envirocycle is accepting glass from home TVs and computer monitors. Most consumer televisions make up a small fraction of Envirocycle's overall business, but Mr. Voorhees expects it to grow.

VOORHEES: The digital will definitely change that. I mean, if digital does come on like they say it will in a couple of years, obviously everyone's going to have to change their television, so that would put a huge slug of glass, probably, into the industry.

GRABER: Mr. Voorhees won't disclose exactly how many television tubes he could recycle, but says his factory is operating well below capacity right now.

(Broken glass spills)

GRABER: Even though there is a strong market for used CRT glass, the problem remains how to get the picture tubes to the factory for recycling. Collecting bulky televisions and computers is expensive, and only a few states are doing it. Some communities gather electronic devices on hazardous waste collection days. One state, Massachusetts, will soon impose a landfill ban in coordination with a reuse and recycling program. But these efforts are costly, and most states are avoiding the issue.


GRABER: The fact is, it's unlikely we'll end up with 250 million obsolete televisions overnight. The deadline might be pushed back if enough people don't own digital TVs by 2006. Even if the FCC does hold to its deadline, some people will buy converter boxes instead of new digital sets. But in any case, whether the shift happens rapidly or over a number of years, someone, whether industry, state, or local government, is going to be left with the cost of dealing with millions of useless TVs.

(Parts fall)

GRABER: For Living on Earth, I'm Cynthia Graber.



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