Getting the Lead Out

Confronting the issues associated with processing lead-based glass.

Recently, a colleague in Illinois learned her waste handler allows customers to include one television in their standard garbage collection each week. Because she is heavily involved in the e-waste and IT asset recovery industry and knows the challenges of recycling the lead-based cathode ray tubes (CRT) found in televisions and monitors, she inquired with the city to determine which e-waste company was overseeing the project.

Despite Illinois' newly implemented e-waste legislation, she learned there was no e-waste recycler involved and that the televisions were being taken to landfills. While the state's legislation established certain regulations surrounding the disposal of e-waste, there is no landfill ban. Thus, waste handlers are allowed to bury toxic materials, not to mention valuable reusable materials.

Many states are going to great lengths to develop manufacturer take-back programs and are establishing permanent drop-off (PDO) centers to deal with the e-waste issue. By allowing garbage companies to send e-waste to landfills, the effectiveness of these innovative programs is undermined. So far, only 12 states have implemented landfill bans.

One of the primary issues with lead-based glass processing for CRTs is that the proper methods are extremely expensive, which makes exporting the materials overseas or placing them in landfills the cheaper, yet more harmful, option. The costs associated with implementing proper recycling methods greatly impact consumers, commercial and municipal organizations, processors, and manufacturers.

If CRTs continue to end up in landfills, by 2016, an estimated 5.85 billion pounds of hazardous waste will wind up underground along with more than $7.5 billion in valuable resources. This highlights the need for the development of safe methods for processing lead-based glass.

Lead-based glass processing methods

One lead-based glass recycling method is shredding, in which processers shred CRTs into small pellets before shipping them to a smelter. The smelter recovers an average of 40 percent to 50 percent of the lead and uses the balance in their furnaces as flux to lower the melting point. The issue is that after one melt, 40 to 50 percent of the lead glass remains in the form of a smaller particulate, a waste product that is subsequently dumped in landfills. As a result of its small size, the lead is more easily leached into ground water. Also, because there are only three smelters capable of handling lead-based glass in North America (Missouri in the United States, and New Brunswick and British Columbia in Canada), hefty freight costs are incurred on top of the costs for shipping CRT materials to a shredder.

The other method of CRT processing is known as glass-to-glass recycling. This involves breaking down whole units (monitors, televisions, etc.) into component pieces and re-selling those parts to the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) for re-use. De-manufacturing the glass materials involves separating the front panel glass from the funnel tube glass, breaking it up into chunks, packaging it to meet EPA standards and then shipping to a manufacturer-owned plant, where the glass is reused in the manufacture of more analog lead-based glass products.

In the past six years, many of these manufacturer-owned plants around the world have closed, leaving only nine operating plants, all located in Asia. Much like the shredding method, glass-to-glass recycling is extremely expensive due to shipping costs.

Aside from the freight expenses, the glass-to-glass method also is costly from a processing standpoint. Separating the front panel glass from the funnel glass increases costs, and many plants will only accept washed glass, which requires an extra stop at a facility in Mexico where this is completed.

Finally, the glass-to-glass processors are at the mercy of the glass company buyers who wait for low prices and then place large orders. This requires the processor to allow inventory to build up, making the process even more cost-prohibitive.

Initiating change

It is clear that the United States needs to develop innovative markets to handle the rising supply of CRT glass due to the ongoing digital transition, which will render 300 million televisions obsolete. One approach is to look at materials that exist within lead-based glass and find new ways to re-use them. For example, silica, commonly found in nature as sand or quartz, makes up two-thirds of the weight of a CRT tube and can be repurposed in a variety of ways, including use in:

  • Cement
  • Bricks
  • Ceramics
  • Highway construction
  • Solar panels

The industries responsible for these types of products are still relatively unfamiliar with silica and its uses, and therefore more commonly rely on sand. The key is to have these industries adopt silica as a viable material option. Because manufacturers would likely pay the same price for either material, they should be required to use a certain percentage of silica in their products.

Perhaps the biggest lead-based glass e-waste issue to address is the need for all CRT products to be banned from landfills. However, comprehensive plans to collect and process that material must be put in place before implementing landfill bans, including how the subsequent costs will be handled. The best course of action may be to implement an advanced recovery fee, which would allow manufacturers and consumers to share the cost.

Additionally, incentives should be put into place to assist glass-to-glass processors and smelters in setting up businesses in North America, which would directly impact the reduction of shipping costs.

We need to find innovative uses for the materials found in CRT tubes. We need landfill bans in all states. We need more glass-to-glass processors in the United States. We need more end markets besides Asia for CRT glass. If we can implement these changes, we will minimize the amount of e-waste entering landfills, prevent hazardous e-waste from being buried in the ground, and create tens of thousands of jobs in the process. So, why aren't we solving this problem faster?

Linda McFarland is CEO of Paragon Green, an information technology asset recovery and e-waste recycling firm, and president and CEO of Classic Computer Recovery Inc., which are both based in Garden City, Mich. She also serves as executive vice president of business development for joint venture partner 5R Processors Ltd. (5R), based in Ladysmith, Wis.

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TAGS: E-Waste Glass