The simple fact that televisions contain many harmful chemicals that require specialized handling makes TV recycling difficult. Compounding this is a severe lack of responsible recycling facilities in the US and surrounding regions. This is because the recycling landscape has changed dramatically in the US over the past several years. As a result, TV recycling, specifically CRT recycling, has become difficult and expensive. The market for CRTs, and the materials extracted from them, disappeared in the blink of an eye. This article takes a look at TV recycling in the US and outlines ways to dispose of TVs while being conscious of the environment.
Which Type of TV Are You Recycling?
As an electronic recycler, the common phone call we receive is, “Do you recycle TVs?” We do, but there’s more to it than that. Recycling a CRT TV is different from recycling a flat-screen. For this reason, you must be able to identify which type of TV you are trying to recycle. A CRT is noticeably different from the newer, flatter TVs that have become the norm over the past twenty years. With a new look comes new technology and, in theory, less impact on the environment. While CRT TVs are undoubtedly harder on the environment than flat screens, both are toxic and notoriously difficult to recycle.
CRT: The Really Old TV
CRT TV recycling is the most cumbersome because of the design of the TV. Most people know what a CRT TV is, but they don’t know it by that name. The best way to describe a CRT is, they have a big back and weigh a ton. CRT stands for ‘cathode-ray tube.’ This vacuum-sealed glass tube creates a beam of negatively charged electrons. The ‘big-back’ on a CRT is necessary to hold the tube safely. The tube concentrates electrons in a stream that reacts with phosphors to create a picture. Phosphors (substances that glow) coat the glass’s inside to increase the image’s brightness and color.
By the 1930s, CRT TVs were being commercially produced, and by 1960, nearly 90 percent of American households had one. The impact of most Americans having access to a TV cannot be overlooked. Much like the internet revolutionized the accessibility of information, the CRT made the shared human experience accessible in ways never imagined. Suddenly, the average person could watch a human land on the moon and see war unfold in real-time. However, all of yesterday’s CRT TVs and computer monitors need to be collected and recycled.
Plasma: The Not So Old TV
Since 2007, plasma TV sales have dropped steadily because of the LCD. AS such, plasma TVs are being recycled at a steady rate. Plasma TVs are flatter than CRTs, but they do have a larger back than most LCDs. Plasma displays were actually invented before CRTs and are equivalent to them in environmental impact. Like CRTs, plasma TVs use mercury and phosphors. Flat screens with mercury bulbs potentially pose a future issue similar to CRTs. There is inadequate warnings/information about this issue. In addition to toxins, Plasma TVs use significantly more energy than CRTs and LCDs. As with CRTs, plasma TVs need to be collected and phased out.
LCD/LED: The (Usually) Broken Old TV
LCD or Liquid Crystal Display TVs typically use LED or Light-Emitting Diode displays. These skinny TVs often use LCD and LED coupled together, but they don’t have to. The LCD/LED combination produces extraordinary picture quality and is generally brighter than TVs of the past. The extraordinary light produced makes them perfect for billboards and signs. Unfortunately, the widespread commercial use means there are far more of them than there ever were CRTs.
Projection TVs: The Middle-Aged TV
Rear-projection and front-projection TVs are free-standing, large, and light TVs that were very popular until approximately 2006. They can be CRT, LCD, or laser-based. They use a lens or mirror to project the image made by the CRT or LCD. The projection allows for the large screen sizes seen in this type of TV. As with plasma TVs, projection TVs have been around far longer than most consumers realize. They were very popular in the late 1940s using CRT technology. In the early 2000s, they were a less expensive alternative to burgeoning plasma and LCD TVs. However, as prices have decreased on flat screens, the projection TV market has crashed. Since projection TVs are simply a re-working of CRT and LCD technology, their environmental impact is equal to CRTs and LCDs.
Why TV Recycling is Important
The Environmental Impact of CRT TVs
The cathode-ray tube (CRT) is a vacuum tube. Breaking the vacuum seal, say by dropping the TV, there is potential for an implosion. This thick glass minimizes the risk to anyone close by if the tube implodes. 30% of the weight of a CRT TV is in this leaded glass. In the event the glass cracks, the lead or barium will block X-rays coming from the inside. The TV screen’s colors are created by blending heavy metals into the phosphors coating the inside of the glass. Because of the inclusion of lead or barium, CRTs marked for disposal are considered hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).
The Impact of Landfilling
If landfilled, the heavy metal in CRTs has environmental disaster potential. The heavy metals inside a TV get into the land, water, and air, as they sit in landfills and piles in the desert. Life does not tolerate heavy metals, such as lead, mercury, and arsenic, even in small quantities. They cause congenital disabilities, directly attack the brain, and ultimately lead to death if enough of the metal is allowed to build up in the body. Extra processing is necessary to ensure the toxins do not get into the environment or harm those tasked with physically disassembling them.
The Environmental Impact of flat-screen TVs
Plasma, LDC, QLED, OLED, or LED TVs are referred to as ‘flat-screen TVs’. This is a generic term that is comparing them to the big-backed CRT. In addition to a smaller physical footprint, they boast better picture quality through improved technology. These factors decreased the prices leading to LCD panels outselling CRTs worldwide for the first time in 2008.
The impact of landfilling
The amount of toxic chemicals found in the flat screens is smaller than in CRTs. However, they still contain an alphabet soup of harmful chemicals like antimony, arsenic, barium, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, cobalt, copper, lead, mercury, molybdenum, nickel, selenium, silver, vanadium, and zinc. Besides known hazards, with new technologies comes the introduction of new materials. Those materials may have an unknown downstream effect. When landfilled, these chemicals leach into the water, land, and air. Many of these chemicals take hundreds of years to break down. Even then, they may break down into an even more dangerous material.
Everybody has to have one (or two)
Flat-screens use far less electricity than CRTs. A Consumer Technology Association (CTA) study found that LCD TVs from 2015 consume 76% less energy (per screen area) than TVs did in 2003. However, while energy consumption has dropped, the average screen size has increased by more than 20% since 2010. Even though flat screens use less energy and have less toxicity, consumers go through them faster. More than 60% of replaced televisions in 2012 were still functioning; this is mostly because of decreasing prices and lightning-fast technological advancements. This drives consumers to upgrade, versus holding on to a TV for 25 years, as was the case with CRTs. Because of this, there are more flat screens out there. Adding to the volume of TVs in circulation is the advent of the multiple TV house. In 2011, the average American household had 2.5 TVs, with 30% having 4 or more.
The Impact of Design
Most people can attest to the almost indestructible, tank-like construction of the CRT. They work for years and years. In contrast, electronics such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops seem to have shorter and shorter lives. They break easier, plain and simple. This wouldn’t be an issue, except, “There are trends towards non-repairability/replaceability/re-programmability in the design of products.” More and more manufacturers use proprietary parts that are not interchangeable or solder previously replaceable parts to mainboards. This makes today’s products less ‘fixable’ and ‘upgradeable’ than past technology. Apple and its proprietary screws are one example of this. This trend forces consumers to buy new and increases resource consumption. All of this increases the need for reliable TV recycling.
The Impact of Mass Manufacturing
LCDs are manufactured using nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), which is a potent greenhouse gas. Also, solvents called tetramethylammonium hydroxide, iodine/potassium iodide, and dimethyl sulfoxide are used to manufacture LCDs. All three are toxic and dissolve in water, which means they get into the water supply. Although flat panel display devices create fewer human health concerns than CRTs, the latest tech devices are worse when it comes to the environment. This concern primarily is because of the mercury in LCD TVs. The sheer number of LCDs being produced for TVs and commercial use is staggering. The ecofootprint of the manufacturing, shipping, packaging, longevity, and use cancel out the energy savings from the flat-screen technology.
The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Harsh Reality of TV Recycling
Over the past 30 years, the most effective management method for unwanted or broken CRTs was to recycle them into more CRTs. However, with the shift from CRT technology to flat panel technologies, the new CRT market is dwindling. Unfortunately (or fortunately), CRTs have reached the end of the line. They are environmentally devastating, have no market value, and require expensive, specialized equipment to recycle. All of this makes it expensive to be a TV recycler.
Why There is a Fee for CRT Recycling?
In the US and North America, CRT TV recycling is scant, cumbersome, and scattered. The (literal) cost of protecting the environment and the workers of the facility is high. There is minimal incentive to be in the CRT recycling business. As such, there are only two CRT recyclers in the US and four in North America. When ACE ships out a load of TVs for recycling, we pay the shipping cost, and we pay by the pound for the recycling. ACE and our downstream recycler have to recoup our cost for responsible disposal. Unfortunately, doing the right thing has a price. Any TV recycler will have to do the same. This is why you should be suspicious of a recycler that does not charge you a minimal fee. The expectation of this is municipalities, as they are recouping their cost through taxes.
The Easy Way Out
There is a general unwillingness to commit to investing in recycling at federal and local levels. This, in turn, leaves no incentive for more TV recyclers to open shop. This leaves the average person with few options to do the right thing. Companies willing to even deal with TVs are few and far between. The consumer often opts for the landfill and not proper disposal. The US EPA estimates that 194,000 tons of computer monitors and 181,000 tons of televisions were recycled in 2010. This includes CRTs and flat screens. This means only 33% of computer monitors and 17% of TVs were recycled. Consequently, according to an EPA report, lead, cadmium, chromium, and other aging circuitry materials account for 70% of landfills’ hazardous material. Remember – landfills are local. A landfilled TV is directly impacting the quality of your water, land, and air.
What Can be Done?
The solution to the CRT recycling problem is to get them out of circulation. That means to get the CRT out of your basement, attic, or garage and get it to a responsible recycler. This will allow the e-waste industry to focus more on developing the necessary infrastructure to process all the new technology. This is a re-occurring issue within the electronic waste industry. Consumer technology changes too fast for recycling technology to keep up. Compounding the problem is a general unwillingness to invest in recycling technology at federal and local levels. The average consumer is left with few options to do the right thing. Too often, the consumer opts for the landfill, not recycling.
According to the EPA, only 33 percent of computer monitors and 17 percent of TVs were recycled. Consequently, according to an EPA report, lead, cadmium, chromium, and other aging circuitry materials account for 70 percent of landfills’ hazardous material. Remember that landfills are local. This means when a TV is landfilled, it is directly impacting the quality of your water, land, and air.
TV Recycling & Disposal Laws
Laws Regulating Disposal
19 states have CRT disposal bans, which makes it illegal to landfill a CRT. Arizona is not one of them. This means, in Arizona, it is perfectly legal to landfill a CRT. There, it will sit for thousands of years, leaching lead and other toxins directly into our local water, air, and land. This is not advisable. CRTs on the curb for bulk pick-up are landfilled. Thankfully, there are other options in the Valley to dispose of your old TV or monitor that are environmentally sound.
Manufacturer Responsibility in TV Recycling
24 states require manufacturers to pay for some or all recycling of CRT monitors and TVs, and other electronics. Manufacturers accomplish this by partnering with local recyclers or electronic stores. Generally, if you go to the manufacturer’s website, you will find a list of the partners they work with. The Electronics TakeBack Coalition has a complete list of Manufacturers Take-Back Programs and grades them. Best Buy, Staples, or Office Depot are common collection points. Even so, the hassle of storing, packing, and shipping the TVs falls on the recycler, not the manufacturer. Consequently, there are significant gaps and very little transparency when it comes to TV recycling. This is partially due to inconsistency from state to state. The manufacturer needs to meet state electronic waste expectations. This widens the gap further as there are wildly different laws in place from state to state.
Illustrating the gap
Sony is the maker of the ever-popular Sony Trinitron, the grandfather of all CRTs. Sony’s website states, “To encourage consumers to recycle and dispose of electronic devices in an environmentally sound manner, Sony has established a national recycling program for consumer electronics. The Sony Take Back Recycling Program allows consumers to recycle all Sony-branded products for no fee at 75 Waste Management (WM) Recycle America eCycling drop-off centers throughout the US.” They provide the following link, http://www.sony.com/recycle, for “more information about the Sony Take Back Recycling Program.” It goes nowhere, and there is no information on the Waste Management (WM) website. In fact, it specifically states, WM does NOT take CRTS. Emails to the listed contacts result in a postmaster, ’email not found’ error. Calling the number listed takes you to Verizon (?).
Digging further, a collaboration between Sony and ERI is in place for electronic recycling. A search feature allows you to find a recycler in your area by the device. When searching for a CRT recycler using zip codes from Washington state, Texas, Arizona, and California, there are no results. It does say, “If you can’t find an option, look for an upcoming recycling event or mail your Sony-branded product to us for responsible recycling at no cost.” It is going to cost a significant amount to ship a CRT. Sony appears to be taking all the steps needed to clean up the CRT mess, but no actual solution is presented. This is why it is crucial to ask, “Where does this end up?” when searching for a TV recycling facility.
Environmentally Responsible TV Recycling in Arizona
The City of Phoenix
Phoenix residents can drop off CRTs at one of two transfer stations. This option is free of charge for up to 2 CRTs per month and only for residential customers. You must prove residency with a utility bill. This is by appointment only. Please call in advance! For more information, click here.
Drop Off Locations:
3060 S. 27th Ave. Phoenix, AZ 85009
30205 N. Black Canyon Hwy. Phoenix, AZ 85085
Also, the city holds household hazardous waste events. CRTs can be bought to these events. Again, you are limited to 2 for free and must provide proof of residency. According to the City of Phoenix website, this model is changing as of December 2020. For more information on this change, click here.
CRTs can be dropped off at 2222 S. 27th Ave., Phoenix, AZ 85009. This is your cheapest option at $13 for each CRT. For more information, click here.
Best Buy will take CRTs up to 32″ and flat screens up to 50″ for a $25 fee. Tube TVs more than 32″, flat panels greater than 60″, and projection TVs can’t be dropped off; you must use their pick-up service. More information can be found here, www.bestbuy.com/recycling. Best Buy is considered the Take Back program leader, but what they take varies from state to state.
Other Areas in Arizona
For those outside of Maricopa County, the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality lists TV recycling drop-off sites by city.
ACE Recycling charges $25.00 per CRT, $20.00 per projection TV, and $5.00 per flat screen. We work with one of the country’s few CRT recyclers, COM2 Recycling. COM2 does all TV recycling in-house. At COM2, the leaded CRT glass is recycled into ceramic tile glaze. ACE Recycling pledges to maintain our environment and community’s integrity by responsibly recycling CRTs (and all other electronics).
Resale of CRTS
Believe it or not, there is a CRT re-sale market, albeit a small one. Old school video games (think NES Super Mario Bros.) lag on flat-screen TVs. One of the best-known examples is Duck Hunt, which uses Nintendo’s Zapper light gun. When players pull the trigger, the entire screen briefly flashes black, and then a white square appears at the “duck’s” location. If the optical sensor detects a quick black-then-white pattern, it’s a hit. On CRT monitors, which were dominant when the game launched, a character will react almost instantly when you push a button. On newer TVs, the animation may start just a little later. This forces players to adjust their timing and puts them at a disadvantage.
It is possible to find someone who will buy your CRT TV if it works. However, they should be local, as it will be expensive to ship the TV. Local selling sites like Craig’s List, Facebook Marketplace, and Offer Up are good places to list your working CRT. Remember, this is a very specialized market. You may get lucky and find a gamer in need of a CRT close by, or you might not.
TV Recycling Do’s and Don’t’s
When looking to dispose of your TV, there are a couple of things to keep in mind. First, it is important to know what type of TV you have. Second, you will likely pay a fee. Third, you should ask, ‘Where does this end up?”. Recycling TVs is difficult in the US, especially CRTs. It is best to get them out of your house and to a recycler to ease the strain on TV recyclers. ACE Recycling will be happy to collect your TV and dispose of it properly; however, there are less expensive options. Those options may come with caveats, like pre-scheduling and proof of residency. If you wish to drop off your TV to ACE, we are open Monday through Friday from 8:00 AM to 4:00 PM.