With LCD And Plasma On The Rise, Where Do Old Televisions Go?

Do you remember CRTs (Cathode Ray Tube) TVs? Nowadays every thing seems to be Plasma or LCD. Where do the old CRT’s go?

A new MIT study reports that demand for these CRT devices is still greater than the supply of old discarded CRTs, whose glass is recycled to make new ones. The demand comes mostly from the world’s developing nations, where inexpensive TV sets using CRTs are one of the first luxury items people tend to buy as soon as they have a little bit of disposable income.

Sales of CRT television sets peaked in 2005 at about 130 million units worldwide, and declined to about 90 million last year, The bulk of these new sales are in Asia and Latin America. Virtually all CRTs are now manufactured in Asia.

CRT computer monitors peaked around 2000 at about 90 million units, but they have been replaced with other types almost completely.

CRTs and similar electronic devices are often collected at the curb or special collection drives. Where they go or how they are used is not certain at times.

Because the glass used in CRTs contains a substantial amount of lead which is used to block X-rays produced by the tube’s cathode ray gun to keep them from posing a health risk to viewers, the old tubes can potentially pose risks to human health if simply placed in landfills.

In some places, including most European nations and Japan, they are included in a category of electronics waste that must be properly recycled, but recycling requirements in the United States and most of the rest of the world are inconsistent, or even nonexistent. Where such rules are more likely to be enforced are at business sites as opposed to the residential user.

As a result, the study found that in terms of recycling glass from old CRTs to make new ones, “the amount of new glass required is decreasing, but is much greater than the amount of secondary glass collected, which is increasing.” That balance, the authors found, “is sustainable for the foreseeable future.”

In other words, manufacturers wanting to use the recycled glass can count on having a supply, and recyclers can count on finding a market for the old tubes, for many years to come.

The study was partly an attempt to develop a more general method for analyzing the flow of materials through the whole chain of production, use and disposal or recycling. This is a sort of life cycle analysis.

The biggest issue in recycling CRTs is the imbalance in the centers of supply and demand. Most of the old CRTs being disposed of are in the United States and Europe, whereas the greatest demand for the material for making new CRTs is in Asia. But because glass is a low value commodity, it is expensive to move it large distances.

Fortunately, there are other uses for recycled glass such as smelters and glass manufacturers (assuming they can tolerate the lead). If the plant is producing lead, the lead laced glass can actually add to the lead produced, although the amount is very small.

In Europe, with its strict regulations requiring electronics waste recycling, CRTs represent by far the biggest category of such material being collected, though e-waste is only 1 to 2 percent of the overall waste stream. Because of its lead content, it is one that merits attention. Much of it is shipped from Europe or the US to developing countries where there are fewer regulations regarding its disposal and the protection of people exposed to it. The potential for hazardous exposure is higher as a result.

Ruediger Kuehr, head of the operational unit at the United Nations University’s Institute for Sustainability and Peace, says that this academic study could provide important advice for both industry and government regulators because “those entities are often focused on short term and short sighted issues, and do not have the luxury of taking a broad systems wide, hence holistic, view of an issue.” He says this study is “quite useful in considering what should be done with all of the materials that are a byproduct from recycling, particularly when it is not clear there is demand for the recycled materials.”

There is a need for full life cycle analyses of products in order to plan for recycling and reuse. The current study shows how useful it can be in developing reuse markets.

Article by Andy Soos, appearing courtesy of ENN

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