Recycling Obsolete Television Sets in the Digital Age

June 2008

You have a new flat screen television. You want to be environmentally responsible in getting rid of your old television. What are your options? This is a dilemma that many (if not most) of us will face after February 17, 2009 when federal law will require television stations to begin broadcasting only in digital format. The result will be that many televisions manufactured before March 1, 2007 will become obsolete. While it is possible to add a digital-to-analog converter box to most of these older television sets, consumers will likely replace the older set with a newer model. The question becomes "what to do with all of those old televisions."

Currently, around 2 million tons of old electronics are discarded into landfills annually and that number may rise exponentially in late February 2009. But the issue is not just "where to put all of this trash."

Television sets and computer monitors contain a picture tube known as a cathode ray tube (CRT). The CRT is a funnel-shaped, leaded glass tube with a metal frame inside. CRTs contain four pounds of lead on average and television sets account for the largest source of lead in municipal waste. These electronics can also contain other hazardous materials such as mercury and hexavalent chromium -- all of which can potentially leach into the ground and water supplies. The Natural Resources Defense Council estimates that electronic waste accounts for about 70 percent of the heavy metals found in municipal landfills -- including lead, mercury, arsenic, and cadmium. Thus simply throwing out the old television set with the weekly trash is not a viable option.

To further complicate matters, both federal and state laws apply to the disposal of CRTs, whether they are broken or intact. Because of the lead and other hazardous materials they include, disposed electronics and other e-waste often meet the definition of hazardous waste. Currently, both federal and Indiana law exempt household hazardous waste from regulation meaning that used televisions and computer monitors generated by households are conisderd household hazardous waste and not regulated by either federal or state law. Both entities do suggest recycling.

Similar to households, business that generate less than 220 pounds of hazardous waste per month (about 7 or 8 computers) are also exempt from the federal and state laws regarding hazardous waste disposal. Waste from facilities that generate more than 220 pounds of hazardous waste per month are regulated by federal law and Indiana's electronic waste (e-waste) regulations, located at 329 IAC 16-3-1 et seq. CRTs sent for disposal from large or small quantity generators (those generating amounts more than 220 pounds per month) must be manifested as "hazardous waste" and sent to an appropriate hazardous waste landfill. Otherwise, these businesses can avoid regulation under both Indiana and federal law by sending their e-waste for reuse or recycling. See Hazardous Waste Management System; Modification of the Hazardous Waste Program; Cathode Ray Tubes; Final Rule, 71 Fed. Reg. 42,928 (July 28, 2006) (to be codified at 40 CFR pts. 9, 260, 261, and 271); 329 IAC 16-3-1(7).

Although households generating e-waste are not currently regulated in Indiana, that does not mean that Indiana residents should simply place those old electronics out on the curb on trash day. The EPA suggests that consumers first focus on waste prevention, then recycling, leaving disposal as the last resort.

While most electronic recycling facilities are reputable, consumers must do their homework before dropping the old family television set just anywhere. There are no precise figures, but estimates are that between 50 and 80 percent of the 300,000 to 400,000 tons of electronics collected for recycling in the U.S. each year ends up overseas or in third world countries.

Recycling electronics can cost as much as $300 to $400 per ton. To put this number in prospective, the New York City Sanitation Department, which sponsors electronic collection events twice a year, collected 295 tons of used electronics in 2007. That amounts to roughly $100,000 for recycling used electronics.

Reputable outlets for recycling old electronics, including television sets, do exist. Some of them are free, some charge a nominal fee depending on the amount and size of the item(s), and some offer in-store credit as a reward for bringing items for recycling. For a complete list of recycling options available near you, visit Earth911, a website that "delivers actionable local information on recycling and product stewardship that empowers consumers to act locally, live responsibly and contribute to sustainability," available at www.earth911.org.

While the switch to all-digital television broadcasts in February 2009 will be a great enhancement to the picture and sound quality viewed in the home, it may cause a mountain of old television sets to be discarded or stored as they become obsolete. Due to the ever increasing size of landfills and the potential danger of discarded CRTs, simply putting that old television on the curb for trash collection is no longer a feasible option. So, before you throw out the old television - think "responsible recycling."

Patricia Polis McCrory is a Member with the firm of Frost Brown Todd LLC where she practices in the Business Services Department. Her clientele includes businesses dealing with environmental issues.

Top