Tube tied: Why millions of CRTs are being stockpiled, not recycled

Tube tied: Why millions of CRTs are being stockpiled, not recycled

We recently celebrated America Recycles Day, but we might need to change the name to “America Stockpiles Toxic CRT Glass Day.” A new study shows that many electronics recyclers across the United States have collected payments for recycling our old CRT (cathode ray tube) TVs and monitors, but then instead of actually sending the toxic leaded CRT glass to proper glass processors, they simply stored this glass on their property or other locations.

EPA regulations limit what they call “speculative accumulation” of used CRTs or CRT glass because of their potential to release toxics into the environment and because of concerns that companies might abandon sites with piles of toxic glass -- leaving them to become federal Superfund toxic clean-up sites.

American recyclers have stockpiled an astonishing 860 million pounds of CRT glass, according to a new report from Transparent Planet, entitled “U.S. CRT Glass Management: A Bellwether for Sustainability of Electronics Recycling in the United States.” The bulk of that glass is said to be in the Southwestern states (500 million pounds) and California (200 million pounds). The report findings were presented today by the author, Lauren Roman, Managing Director of Transparent Planet to an e-waste conference.

Get the Lead Out

We all know that “normal” glass is pretty easy to recycle, and in many places they pick it up from our curbside bins for recycling. But CRT glass isn’t easy to recycle because it contains a lot of lead, which is very toxic. Typical CRT TVs or monitors each contain 4-8 pounds of lead in the glass tube, and the inside of the tubes get coated with toxic phosphor dust. While virtually no one in the U.S. is buying new CRTs anymore (we’ve moved on to flat panels), CRTs still comprise a significant amount (often over 60 percent) of what is coming back in electronics recycling programs, especially from consumers who have been retiring their tube TVs in a steady flow since the Digital Conversion in 2009. Because lead is very toxic, it’s important that CRT glass is managed safely and responsibly. Many states have passed bans on putting CRTs in their landfills or incinerators. Federal law also bans them but the law contains a big (and in our opinion, ridiculous) exemption for people who generate small quantities of waste (like consumers and small business).

Recyclers have typically had two options for what to do with CRT glass: send it for glass-to-glass recycling, where it is used as a feedstock to make new CRTs, or send it to a lead smelter where the lead is separated out for other applications (but the smelting usually results in toxic air emissions). The glass-to-glass recycling business has mostly disappeared, as there are not many CRTs being manufactured any more in the world. And the few lead smelters in North America have limited capacity, and they are expensive.

With shrinking options for processing CRT glass, the economics of recycling CRTs have turned upside down in just a few years. According to the report, where recyclers used to earn $205 per ton recycling CRT glass in 2004, they must now pay $200 per ton, a net loss in value of $405/ton in eight years. The problem is that most of the electronics manufacturer takeback programs are not paying their recyclers enough per pound to manage this toxic glass properly.

Other Key Findings From the Report:

  • California stockpiles. Even in California, where the state program reimburses recyclers 39 cents per pound, some recyclers are still stockpiling glass. The State of California is so worried about the stockpiles that they have issued emergency regulations and will now (for the next two years) allow leaded CRT glass collected under their electronics recycling program to be disposed of in the State’s hazardous waste landfill.
  • Billing for more than what’s been collected. The CRT Report also documented a problem that’s been whispered about for a while in this industry – referred to as “air pounds” or “ghost weight.” That’s where a recycler charges a manufacturer’s takeback program for more e-waste than they’ve actually collected. Since weight records are not usually required for material collected at public collection events, some recyclers quote very low prices per pound to the manufacturers to get the work but then claim they collected twice the material than they actually did so they can bill the manufacturers for more than they actually collected. Paper transactions are created between recyclers that often do not represent actual material recycling but rather a "recycling" of paperwork that is used to “prove” recycling occurred…used over and over again.

Some recyclers tell me that they believe that some manufacturers are aware of this problem, but have little incentive to bust recyclers for these deceptive practices as long as they are able to claim the higher volumes towards their (manufacturer) collection goals, and still pay a very low price per pound. But it also takes away business from the responsible recyclers who don’t use ghost pounds, and who won’t sign a contract for CRTs if the price is too low to process it safely.

Changes to State Laws Could Resolve Both Problems

Both of these problems, CRT stockpiling and ghost pounds, is happening both in states with e-waste laws and in states without e-waste laws. Twenty four states have passed e-waste recycling laws, with 23 of them (all but California) based on Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which makes the manufacturers financially responsible for recycling their old products. The States didn’t anticipate these problems; neither did we, as advocates for EPR laws. But clearly there is a need for a little more State oversight into the details, including:

  • Establishing base line pricing for responsible CRT glass management
  • Requiring third-party mass balance monitoring of collection volumes, so that the only “proof” of pounds comes from the third party entity

Bottom line – Product Redesign is the Answer

None of these problems would exist if electronics were designed in a way that the materials were valuable enough and easy enough to recover for new manufacturing. CRTs are the poster child for not designing with the product’s end-of-life in mind. Maybe that’s not a fair criticism, since CRTs were designed back before anyone was thinking about recycling electronics. But the industry still isn’t designing with recycling in mind. They moved from leaded glass CRTs to flat panels using fluorescent lights with highly toxic mercury in them. And used panel “glass” from LCD TVs and monitors do not currently have much recycling value so some recyclers are just landfilling them.

It’s time for this industry to challenge their designers and chemists to design products using safe materials that make their products just as valuable at the end of life as they were when the companies sold them.

Image by Stephen Gibson via Shutterstock