Tube tied: Why millions of CRTs are being stockpiled, not recycled

We recently celebrated America Recycles Day, but we might need to change the name to “America Stockpiles Toxic CRT Glass Day.” A new study shows that many electronics recyclers across the United States have collected payments for recycling our old CRT (cathode ray tube) TVs and monitors, but then instead of actually sending the toxic leaded CRT glass to proper glass processors, they simply stored this glass on their property or other locations.

EPA regulations limit what they call “speculative accumulation” of used CRTs or CRT glass because of their potential to release toxics into the environment and because of concerns that companies might abandon sites with piles of toxic glass -- leaving them to become federal Superfund toxic clean-up sites.

American recyclers have stockpiled an astonishing 860 million pounds of CRT glass, according to a new report from Transparent Planet, entitled “U.S. CRT Glass Management: A Bellwether for Sustainability of Electronics Recycling in the United States.” The bulk of that glass is said to be in the Southwestern states (500 million pounds) and California (200 million pounds). The report findings were presented today by the author, Lauren Roman, Managing Director of Transparent Planet to an e-waste conference.

Get the Lead Out

We all know that “normal” glass is pretty easy to recycle, and in many places they pick it up from our curbside bins for recycling. But CRT glass isn’t easy to recycle because it contains a lot of lead, which is very toxic. Typical CRT TVs or monitors each contain 4-8 pounds of lead in the glass tube, and the inside of the tubes get coated with toxic phosphor dust. While virtually no one in the U.S. is buying new CRTs anymore (we’ve moved on to flat panels), CRTs still comprise a significant amount (often over 60 percent) of what is coming back in electronics recycling programs, especially from consumers who have been retiring their tube TVs in a steady flow since the Digital Conversion in 2009. Because lead is very toxic, it’s important that CRT glass is managed safely and responsibly. Many states have passed bans on putting CRTs in their landfills or incinerators. Federal law also bans them but the law contains a big (and in our opinion, ridiculous) exemption for people who generate small quantities of waste (like consumers and small business).

Recyclers have typically had two options for what to do with CRT glass: send it for glass-to-glass recycling, where it is used as a feedstock to make new CRTs, or send it to a lead smelter where the lead is separated out for other applications (but the smelting usually results in toxic air emissions). The glass-to-glass recycling business has mostly disappeared, as there are not many CRTs being manufactured any more in the world. And the few lead smelters in North America have limited capacity, and they are expensive.

Next page: The Economics of Proper CRT Handling