Switch to digital televisions
to increase electronic recyclers’ workload
Discarded televisions need
to be diverted from landfills
The upcoming switch from analog to digital television at
the start of next year may increase the amount of electronics
dumped in landfills in the United States.
The numbers are staggering. Consumers are expected to get
rid of 43.5 million television sets this year, 41.9 million
in 2009 and 34.3 million in 2010, according to a consumer
electronics trade group. But what will happen to these old
televisions is hotly debated.
On one side are the environmentalists. Electronic waste is
already the fastest growing portion of the waste stream,
says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics
TakeBack Coalition in San Francisco. She says the transition
to digital televisions starting next year will only lead
to a faster pace of consumers dumping old units.
On the other side is the $161 billion United States consumer
electronics industry. “There’s never been a proven
link between the purchase of a new television and the removal
of an old one,” says Parker Brugge, vice president
of environmental affairs and corporate sustainability at
the Consumers Electronics Association in Arlington, Virginia.
Kyle strongly disagrees. “I think we’re in for a pretty rude
awakening when a lot of people in February 2009 wake up and
aren’t able to watch television,” she says. “I think we’ll
see a spike in the number of televisions going into the trash
sometime around February.”
This could lead to health hazards, Kyle says, because televisions
contain hazardous materials. Older televisions with tubes
contain between four and eight pounds of lead. Most new flat-panel
televisions contain less lead but the televisions have more
mercury. Just 1/70th of a teaspoon of mercury has the potential
to contaminate 20 acres of a lake, making fish unfit to eat.
Kyle expects most old televisions to go to landfills. “Sadly
this is still legal in a lot of states,” she says, noting
that only ten states have banned e-waste from landfills.
“More people understand that e-waste shouldn’t go in the
trash, but finding a good recycling option is a challenge.
Some people are just hanging onto old televisions,” she says,
adding that a lot of unwanted televisions will be left in
basements, garages and in storage.
Brugge, with the consumer electronics trade group, agrees
that more people are hanging onto old televisions. But he
does not expect an increase in the number of old televisions
thrown in the trash as a result of the switch to all digital
broadcasting in February.
Brugge says most of the old televisions will be moved into
a different room of the house or put to different uses by
consumers, like watching DVDs or playing video games.
The switchover also will not impact that many people, he
says, pointing out that only 12 percent of households rely
exclusively on over-the-air broadcasting. Cable and satellite
subscribers do not need to convert to a digital television
to receive signals. Of those that rely on broadcast signals,
48 percent of the households expect to buy a digital converter
box to continue to receive broadcasts, according to recent
Research by the trade group also shows 95 percent of the
televisions consumers plan to remove from their homes in
the next three years will be sold, donated or recycled.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is not taking
a stand on whether more televisions will be sent to landfills
because of the switchover from analog to digital. “We are
unable to predict how many televisions will enter the waste
stream because of the digital transition,” says Roxanne Smith,
a press officer in Washington, D.C. with the EPA.
Regardless of the switch, the EPA estimates that 82.7 million
televisions will enter the waste stream between 2008 and
2010. Roxanne says continuous changes in technology are spurring
faster conversion rates, irrespective of the analog to digital
To prevent additional televisions from entering the waste
stream, the EPA encourages consumers to extend the life of
over-the-air analog televisions by subscribing to a paid
television service or connecting it to an analog-to-digital
converter box. The EPA is also working with television manufacturers
and retailers to increase recycling options for those consumers
who choose to purchase a digital television and wish to donate
or recycle the old television.
Smith cites a recycling program initiated by Best Buy. The
retailer will remove unwanted televisions for recycling when
a new set purchased at Best Buy is delivered.
“Recyclers may benefit from the push to increase public awareness
of recycling opportunities in preparation for the digital
transition,” Smith says. She says recyclers need to remain
adaptable to a changing environment. “Rapid product innovation
is likely to continue. Recyclers will face a continually
changing stream of materials,” she says.
Dave Beal, vice president of recycler EPC, Inc. in St. Charles,
Missouri, is already seeing more televisions. EPC, which
recycles mostly computers, recycled around 80,000 pounds
worth of televisions last year. Beal expects that number
to double this year.
Beal says more education is needed to get consumers to recycle.
“All of the television spots that are running talk about
converter boxes. None of them talk about how to recycle old
televisions,” he says, adding that recyclers could advertise
to capitalize on the switchover.
Education alone is not the answer, says Kyle with the electronics
recycling advocacy group. She says that more regulation is
needed. “The television industry needs to step up and take
back televisions and make sure they recycle responsibly,”
“Clearly they are not doing it on their own. So, we strongly
support legislation. We’ve seen what happens with voluntary
efforts, and it’s not much,” Kyle says.
Out of the entire television industry, only Sony is taking
back televisions, she notes. Sony launched its program last
year. It takes back any products with Sony’s name on it at
Waste Management Recycling America eCycling centers throughout
Twelve states plus New York City have already passed take-back
laws. California also has a take-back program, but it is
funded by consumer fees, not manufacturers.
Brugge, with the trade group representing electronics manufacturers,
says a shared responsibility would work better than forcing
manufacturers to recycle.
“Retailers and governments not only have the best access
to consumers, they also have the infrastructure necessary
to facilitate the easy collection of recyclables,” he says.
Brugge says a national framework for electronics recycling
would eliminate confusion. “While we are not typically in
favor of increased regulation, in this particular case, a
national framework for electronics recycling is much preferred
over the current patchwork of state and local regulations
on electronics recycling,” Brugge says.