How many of you are still holding on to your old cathode ray tube (CRT) television or monitor? According to a recent survey from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), about 40 percent of us have at least one of these bulky, tube-style displays in our homes.
Of course, with the upgrade to flat panels, these CRTs may be collecting dust in your garage or basement. But, since CRTs were a reliable, long-lasting technology, some are still using them as their primary TV or have them connected to external device, such as a DVD player, in an extra room.
The problem for the recycling industry is that all of those CRTs still need to be collected and properly recycled. And since the markets for making new CRTs from the materials in old CRTs went away many years ago as Americans upgraded to new display technologies, the downstream options are limited.
The challenge is primarily in recycling the glass in a CRT, which comprises the bulk of the weight and contains a leaded portion. And even before worrying about proper markets for those materials is the problem of physically collecting and transporting these cumbersome and heavy tubes that have been dispersed in households during the past 60 to 70 years. Some CRT projection TVs can weigh more than 200 pounds.
The few markets for recycling the glass from CRT TVs and monitors have also become more costly. Unlike some other electronics, such as cell phones and desktop computers, there are not enough valuable components (like copper yokes and low-grade circuit boards) to offset the cost of recycling the glass. That means that proper recycling of CRT glass—whether that is smelting or sending to the sole remaining glass-to-glass recycling plant in India—requires some type of subsidy, whether it is from the local government sponsor of a collection program, for instance, or a manufacturer under a voluntary or mandated program.
However, some recyclers have not ensured that they would have adequate funding for sending the glass downstream, which has led to several significant abandonment cases where stockpiles of CRTs have been left in warehouses. This problem has not been confined to one area of the country, nor has been limited to programs outside of the 25 state electronics recycling laws.
The industry is looking at new markets for CRT glass, such as extracting the lead for sale as a separate commodity, but these markets are not yet fully operational in the U.S. Other options for CRT glass that are currently used include treatment and use as alternative daily cover (ADC) on municipal landfills, as well as separation of leaded and non-leaded glass for landfill disposal.
State laws and manufacturer/client requirements may prohibit some of these alternative markets from being an options for the recycler however.
Despite the challenges in the downstream markets, consumers continue to turn in old CRTs at increasing rates. Looking at data from the state law programs, which are primarily household rather than business returns, an estimated 80 percent of the weight coming back are CRTs. That equates to roughly 600 million pounds of CRTs that were collected under the 25 state law programs in 2013. There are very little data we have on electronics collection totals in the other 25 states, but it’s safe to say that voluntary collection programs from households in those states would see similar percentages of CRTs.
There is light at the end of the tunnel, however. CRTs will cease to be returned at some point in the future. The CEA survey reported that 44 percent of households had disposed of a CRT in the last five years. An analysis from the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER), as well as a comparison to the recent MIT-NCER study on exports of used electronics, gives us an estimated 3-4 billion pounds of CRTs recycled during the last five years.
But the analysis shows we still could get as much as 6 billion pounds of CRT TVs and 1 billion pounds of CRT monitors if everyone returned them to collection programs.
We have come far in capturing the legacy of CRT TVs and monitors that have now been replaced by flat panels. However, there are still substantial quantities left to collect for recycling during the next decade or perhaps longer. For now, CRTs continue to be a source of the most significant challenges for the evolving electronics recycling industry.
Jason Linnell is co-founder and executive director of the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER) where he leads activities for the NCER, including research on electronics recycling data and policy and management of the Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse.