Switch to digital televisions expected to increase electronic recyclers’ workload
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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 survey results.

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 transition.

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,” Kyle says.

“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 the country.

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.