Tech Trash

New technology causes trouble for recyclers

April 19, 2013

Old computer monitors and televisions use materials that are diffcult to handle and properly recycle.

Picture a wasteland of old computer monitors and TVs, stretching as far as the eye can see. Imagine towers of boxes, all of them filled with broken glass and discarded electronic devices.

Technology graveyards like this can be found in communities across the country. Experts say that landfills and warehouses will overflow unless a plan for the disposal and reuse of electronics is put into place. “We can’t put electronics and glass aside and tell ourselves we’ll deal with them later,” Lauren Roman, managing director of TransparentPlanet told TFK. “Later has been going on for a long time and the piles continue to grow.” Roman’s group works to improve the disposal of electronic waste. She says about 660 million pounds of tech trash is produced each year in the U.S

The Trouble With Tubes

What’s behind the tech trash pile-up? About ten years ago, major advances were made in computer and television technology. Manufacturers began producing devices like flat-paneled LCDs and plasma screen monitors. These new products provide a clearer image and take up less space than older models. “Flat-paneled plasmas and LEDs are putting bulky, glass-based technologies out of the market,” says Jason Linnell of the Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse.

Four 18 wheeler loads of electronic equipment are collected at a recycling event in Memphis, Tennessee.

Four 18 wheeler loads of electronic equipment are collected at a recycling event in Memphis, Tennessee.

The new electronics are built with materials that are difficult to recycle. In addition, the new products have decreased the demand for recycled parts from the older monitors and screens. Older, bulkier computer monitors and TVs used glass-based components called cathode ray tubes, or CRTs.

CRTs have a high lead content and can be environmentally hazardous if not recycled properly. If crushed and put in landfills, the lead from CRTs could seep into groundwater and rivers, contaminating the water supply. For many years, plants and recycling programs safely processed CRTs. The recycled CRTs were reused in the construction of new monitors.

Monitors being made today do not use glass tubes. “People are returning old-style TVs with CRTs, but no new ones are being made,” said Linnell. This is creating an imbalance in the amount of glass being disposed of and recycled properly. Many recycling companies have shut down. Others no longer have the resources or space to process these materials. This results in stockpiling.

Be a Part of the Solution

Experts say there are ways to safely and responsibly address the tech-trash problem. Barbara Kyle is the national coordinator of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition. The organization encourages people to donate their old, but functioning, electronics to charities or neighbors who will use them. “It’s better for the planet if we keep using an electronic for as long as it keeps working,” Kyle told TFK in an e-mail. “But many times, we stop using it even though it stills works, because we got a newer product.”

Students can also be a part of the solution. Schools can organize take-back programs, or set up recycling projects to collect used electronics. They can also work with responsible electronics recyclers, called e-Stewards, to handle their old devices. Many electronics manufacturers also provide a return program where consumers can send back devices that they no longer use. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, 25 states now have laws that deal with the disposal and recycling of electronics. Most of these laws require manufacturers to pay for collection and recycling at the end of a product’s life.  

Through these various programs and organizations, consumers can reduce tech trash and become part of the solution. “When you’re finished with something, bring it for recycling right away because there's a chance it might be able to be reused,” said Roman. “That's the best conservation of resources.”

To learn more about how you can help solve the tech-trash problem, click here.

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