MARCH 2009

CRT demanufacturing receives high-tech help
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CRT Heaven’s Angel unit uses high-speed, diamond-tipped blades to separate the leaded funnel glass from the unleaded panel glass, resulting in two separate streams of specialized glass that can be reprocessed and used to manufacture new products.

Cathode ray tubes (CRTs) have been around since the dawn of television. They managed to smoothly transition to computers as monitors, and to date, billions of CRTs have been manufactured. However, they are now being rapidly supplanted by flat-screen liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and plasmas. The latest generation CRTs offer superb image quality, but they are big, heavy and deep, because the larger the screen size, the longer the tube.

The fall of the CRT has also been affected by the transition from analog to digital broadcasting that has sped the sale of DTV-ready LCDs. As a result, tens of millions of old television and computer monitors need to be handled – not go into landfills and not be exported as whole units to countries where unsound practices expose workers and the environment to toxic substances such as lead, mercury, cadmium and PCBs. Depending on screen size, a CRT can contain several pounds of lead and interior phosphor coatings sealed in a vacuum tube.

Steve Fuelberth, CEO of Luminous Recycling in Denver, explained his state’s dilemma, “In Colorado, residential electronics are not banned from landfills, but we are working on regulations to stop it. If a business tries to put electronics in trash, it is considered hazardous waste – it cannot be sent to our landfills and a fee must be paid for proper disposal.” With regulations pending in many other states and cities, it is likely that all CRTs will eventually be banned from landfills.

There is recycling equipment on the market that crushes CRTs in sealed chambers and separates the metal components from the glass. The result is a mixed stream of both leaded and unleaded glass that can be smelted for lead content.

The challenge of properly and profitably recycling CRTs and other electronic products is difficult, but is being met by a number of electronic waste disposal companies around the country. Luminous is among the new breed of companies specializing in the environmentally safe recycling of CRTs that results in separated streams of clean leaded and unleaded glass. “We do not remarket anything containing a CRT. It’s important to our customers that what we export does not fall under the CRT export rule, because it is a processed commodity at that point,” said Fuelberth.

There’s no valuable commodity in CRTs and the recovered glass has low value, but is marketable. Like most electronic recyclers Luminous charges a fee to dispose of CRTs. “We price ourselves to our recycling partners as a wholesaler. Those customers produce large volumes so they get volume discounts,” Fuelberth said.

Last spring, Luminous Recycling and Newtech Recycling in Bridgewater, New Jersey were the first companies in the United States to start using high tech CRT recycling machines made by CRT Heaven in the United Kingdom. Each company spent approximately $500,000 for Heaven’s Angel units. “These machines can processes anywhere from 60 to 85 CTRs per hour, and smoothly handle screen sizes from 10 to 40-inches – either whole tubes or ones with broken necks – without slowing down production,” said Jim Entwistle, president and partner of Newtech.

The Angel’s automated process uses high-speed, diamond-tipped blades to cut the entire circumference of the tube at the “frit line” that separates the heavily leaded funnel glass from the unleaded panel glass, thereby creating two streams of desirable, specialized glass that can be reprocessed and used to manufacture new products. “There is definitely a demand for the glass material, no question. It’s not profitable as a standalone product without receiving upfront disposal fees, but it supports the business model,” said Entwistle.

The business model for disposing of CRTs and other electronic products is very interesting. Responsibly demanufacturing electronic goods is not profitable today based on the derivative materials alone, but must be supported by advanced user fees paid by electronics manufacturers, corporations, governments or consumers. Either on a volunteer basis or by force of state laws a majority of the major manufacturers have programs or pilot projects to recover and recycle old products.

Under the Sony program, for example, companies like Luminous and Newtech are regularly audited by Sony to make sure environmentally sound processes are employed, and to track downstream receivers of recycled materials. Authorized recyclers report the number of Sony products they ingest and are compensated with fees according to the type of product de-manufactured. “Everything that comes in here will become feed stock for other manufacturers. We have a no-landfill policy. Nothing goes into landfill that doesn’t belong in a landfill,” Entwistle emphasized.

Fees paid to electronic recyclers range from approximately $10 to $20 dollars depending on the screen size of the TV and approximately $10 dollars for a computer monitor. “More and more of the bidders that respond want to know where I am sending the material and who the downstream vendors are,” said Entwistle.

In 2000, Newtech was the first electronic recycler in New Jersey to be licensed by New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP). At the company’s 55,000 square foot New Jersey facility, approximately 25 flex-time employees recycle electronics ranging from cell phones to copiers to CPUs. “Technologies like the Angel and electronics recycling generate new jobs every day. For our system, each shift we run anywhere from 16 to 18 people to support the system,” said Fuelberth at Luminous.

Processing begins with manual “shelling” of the plastic housings from the CRTs. At Newtech plastic is divided into two streams, those from TVs and those from computers, which are sold to plastics recyclers. “Plastic monitor cases are bulky and expensive to handle and ship, a variety of plastics are used and components may be contaminated by metal or other material. Although prices paid and material specifications will vary, scrap plastic markets generally pay a good price for sorted, uncontaminated, ground material shipped to their location. Conversely, they will not accept, or charge a fee, for loads of loose, mixed, unprepared components,” said Entwistle. Luminous sends out its plastic in bulk to a domestic processor that specializes in separating plastics and remarketing.

Metal components and the copper-laden yoke are removed manually from the funnel end of the tube and metals are sorted for scrap. “There’s gold in some circuitry and we do our best to recover that by sending it out to a refinery,” said Entwistle.

After a CRT is cleaned of extraneous labels and adhesives, it is fed on rollers into a chamber where it is secured by a vacuum and hydraulic system with a laser leveling device. Then, the CRT moves into a sealed chamber with an air filtration system where the CRT is measured and cut to separate the funnel, or leaded glass section from the frontal or unleaded glass section. The leaded funnel glass goes into an environmental chamber where it is crushed and the non-leaded glass goes into a separate chamber where the phosphor dust is removed and the panel crushed. The result: two clean streams of glass crushed into two to five inch sizes, known as Clean Glass Cullet and Leaded Glass Cullet. The aggregates are sealed into cardboard boxes, labeled and loaded into cargo containers for export.

“These special types of glass can be used to make new CRT, LED and plasma monitors and make the reprocessing easier and less costly for our customers. We are partnering with Samsung-Corning in Malaysia, but most of my glass currently is going to India,” said Entwistle.

Luminous is in the process of establishing another electronic recycling center in the Midwest to access more CRT volume, better serve its national customers and reduce shipping costs. In addition to the Angel system, it will have a Devil unit that removes the graphic paint from the glass, making it furnace-ready.

“With the value of the commodities going down the tube, we have to offset our costs in the way of fees. Our technology is probably the best available today. It allows us to keep over overhead costs as low as possible because of the volume of the system – a whole monitor into the parts we need in less than two minutes,” said Fuelberth.