Several states in the U.S. have passed laws to prohibit TVs and computer monitors with cathode ray tube (CRT) technology from entering landfills. The devices, which contain leaded glass as well as trace amounts of other potentially toxic metals, pose a threat to the soil and groundwater near landfills, especially if they breach the landfill’s lining in the future.
To spur collection of CRT devices at the end of their lives, many states have put in place programs that offer incentives to companies that collect old monitors and TVs as a way of ensuring these devices are diverted from landfills.
In addition, the electronics recycling sector has assumed somewhat of a “gold rush” aspect for the past several years, as entrepreneurs have streamed into the segment to harvest refurbishable machines, resalable components, precious metals, nonferrous metals and recyclable plastics contained in obsolete electronics.
The combination of state systems and private sector enthusiasm has raised the diversion rate of old CRT devices in recent years. For the most part, these devices have progressed through well-traveled channels to proper end-of-life recycling methods or to disposal.
Within the past two years, however, several cases of abandoned CRT monitors have been discovered, prompting debate over whether the CRT recycling market as configured contains fundamental flaws.
Home and away
A decade ago, much of the debate surrounding end-of-life CRT monitor disposition focused on unsafe and environmentally unsound recycling practices taking place overseas.
The Basel Action Network (BAN), Seattle, has had among its foremost missions the enactment and enforcement of the export ban for nonworking monitors from OECD (Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) nations to non-OECD nations. BAN was a key player in exposing unsafe and hazardous recycling of monitors and TVs in Guiyu, China, in 2001. Many of those monitors and TVs bore identification tags tracing them to the United States.
The export issue remains part of the debate to BAN and other organizations but also has a domestic counterpart in the form of abandoned stockpiles of CRT devices in the U.S.
Longer journeys for a longer life cycle
The video Exporting Harm, released by the Seattle-based Basel Action Network (BAN) in 2002, displayed a litany of bad environmental and worker safety practices taking place in Guiyu, China, in the recycling of obsolete electronics and electrical transformers.
BAN subsequently pointed to Guiyu as a reason why obsolete electronics should not be shipped from developed OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) nations to non-OECD nations.
However, a faction of electronics recyclers was quick to object to the proposed ban, saying repaired and repairable computers were helping to connect the developing world (including school children) to the Internet and were providing technical skills and entrepreneurial opportunities to technicians and recyclers in developing nations.
The debate has included the use of statistics by each side to back up its support for or opposition to an export ban.
The summary findings of the 2002 54-page Exporting Harm report includes this statement: “Millions of pounds of electronic waste from obsolete computers and TVs are being generated in the U.S. each year and huge amounts—an estimated 50 percent to 80 percent collected for recycling—are being exported.” BAN cites “informed recycling industry sources” for the 50 percent to 80 percent estimate.
Two studies cited by the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI) on its website, www.isri.org, examine whether trade statistics show that the U.S. is flooding developing nations with used electronics, as portrayed by BAN.
The February 2013 U.S. International Trade Commission (USITC) study, “Used Electronic Products: An Examination of U.S. Exports,” is billed by ISRI as “the most comprehensive report on the collection and export of used electronics products (UEPs).”
The study found that more than 80 percent of the UEPs collected in the U.S. were recycled, reused or refurbished domestically while 17 percent of such items were sent for export, says ISRI. “A subsequent report released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Materials Systems Laboratory and the U.S. National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER) in 2013 indicates that more than 90 percent of used electronics collected for recycling within the U.S. remain in the U.S. for processing and are not exported,” adds ISRI.
More recently, Robin Ingenthron of Good Point Recycling, Middlebury, Vermont, says Basel Convention auditors themselves have helped demonstrate that the global used electronics trade is a viable and honest one.
“Seized container loads were studied by independent Basel Convention-funded auditors and found 91 percent reuse rates,” says Ingenthron, who says this level of working order is “better than [that of] brand new product sold there.”
Ingenthron adds, “If avoided recycling costs were really the driver, you would see televisions, not 17-inch CRT monitors, exported to Asia.” He says the purpose of shipping the monitors clearly is to resell them, not to dump them.
Media reports from July 2013 to April 2014 pointed to the discovery of stockpiled CRT devices in Arizona, Colorado, Maryland, North Carolina, Ohio and other states. Additionally, a sizable soil cleanup project in Arizona is tied to stockpiles of crushed CRT glass produced from monitors collected in California.
Electronics recyclers and NGOs (nongovernment organizations), such as BAN have differing opinions about the causes of the current state of the CRT recycling market and, likewise, offer different suggestions as to how to improve the situation. There is, however, widespread agreement about two things:
- there is room for improvement in how monitors are handled currently; and
- the decline in CRT technology use is likely to make profitable recycling even more difficult in the future.
Among the sources of disagreement, a major one remains the role of developing (non-OECD) nations as users of repairable and remarketable CRT monitors. BAN remains concerned that non-OECD nations are being taken advantage of as “dumping grounds” for nonworking monitors, while another sector of traders and recyclers says it has data on its side to show that what non-OECD nations receive is usable and wanted by consumers there. (See the sidebar “Longer journeys for a longer life cycle,” opposite page.)
Although BAN continues to largely oppose the exporting of used electronics to prolong the life of monitors, it has begun to offer its e-Stewards certification to recyclers in other nations. The other major certification program, R2 (Responsible Recycling Practices), made its certification program available to overseas recyclers earlier this decade.
Another source of disagreement is the role of state programs that compensate companies that collect CRT monitors without necessarily ensuring the incentive also exists to send these monitors to processors.
Government critics point to such porgram shortfalls, while the private sector may have a stockpiling problem of its own. According to several sources, many small, entrepreneurial electronics recyclers have accepted monitors along with more desirable items to retain customers. However, once these recyclers have the monitors, they have no profitable way to move them along the processing chain.
As a number of warehouses full of monitors have been discovered in the U.S. in the past 18 months, one of the logical questions to ask is whether it may be a case of insufficient processing capacity for declining CRT technology.
“Leaded silicate can be recycled at copper smelters as well as [at] lead smelters,” says Robin Ingenthron of Good Point Recycling, Middlebury, Vermont.
Jim Puckett, executive director of BAN, says, “We believe that [processing] capacity is not exhausted currently, but it could be if all warehousing were stopped tomorrow.”
Finland-based multinational recycling firm Kuusakoski has opened a CRT recycling facility in Illinois based in part on the premise that new processing capacity is needed in North America. A white paper prepared by engineering firm CB&I, The Woodlands, Texas, shows “there is a capacity and cost issue specifically for CRT glass recycling,” says Anssi Takala of Kuusakoski.
“At a capacity of approximately 128,000 tons per year, existing facilities are able to manage only 60 percent of the CRT glass recovered annually,” the report states. “With an estimated 206,000 tons of CRT glass requiring management annually, there is an existing, immediate market shortfall of 78,000 tons per year, which may explain recent reports of the stockpiling of CRTs.”
The CB&I report contends the future may bring even greater capacity restrictions. “Of additional concern is the future availability of capacity at existing facilities. The [Videocon] facility in Mexico is currently the largest handler of CRT glass, representing 80 percent of existing capacity. Industry experts believe that facility will cease serving as an end market by 2016, and possibly as soon as 2014, which would severely challenge CRT management by [electronic scrap recyclers].”
The figures used by CB&I refer to recycling applications tied to the production of new CRT glass as well as to smelting operations that currently accept limited numbers of monitors.
Agreement on what constitutes the legitimate recycling of CRT devices leads to another debate within the electronics recycling sector. When an old monitor is collected, the number of routes it can take (repair, export, dismantling, smelting, etc.) lead to some outcomes that may be considered desirable recycling by one faction but not by others.
As pointed out by the CB&I white paper, the decline in manufacturing of new CRT monitors in North America has placed a ceiling on the closed-loop recycling capacity for end-of-life monitors.
One such remaining plant in North America is operated by India’s Videocon in Mexicali, Mexico. Ohio-based Dlubak Glass also processes monitor glass, and U.K.-based Nulife Glass opened a CRT glass recycling plant in Dunkirk, New York, in 2013.
Many of the other recycling options do not enjoy widespread support from BAN and other recycling advocates.
The Kuusakoski process in Illinois converts processed monitor glass into a landfill alternative daily cover (ADC), an outcome not markedly different from entering the landfill, according to BAN. “The e-Stewards program has designated that cleaned CRT glass that passes the TCLP (toxicity characteristic leaching procedure) leachate test is acceptable to use for landfill disposal if all other avenues are closed and it is truly a last resort,” says Puckett.
“Currently no company has been able to convince us of this being necessary as a last resort. Unless a company can show this, then they will not be able to complete their program of having all of their sites certified to e-Stewards,” he adds.
An electronics recycler who preferred to remain anonymous says, “My rationale for being opposed to the Kuusakoski process is that the process to collect the CRTs is energy intensive and requires effort, as does the disassembly, cutting into the funnel and panel and cleaning and sizing the material. Once you have the glass in the end state, ready to be recycled, it makes no sense environmentally to put a coating on the cullet and disperse it in thin layers with garbage. It becomes unrecoverable in the future. At the same time they want to bury leaded glass, people are still mining for ore that has lower concentrations of lead than what is present in the funnel. It is insanity.”
Another nonclosed-loop recycler of monitor glass is Global Environmental Services (GES), Austin, Texas. The company crushes CRT monitor glass and “stabilizes the lead content to a minimal percentage,” says Kevin Czachow, GES managing director of sales and marketing.
According to GES President and CEO Kenny Gravitt, the resulting sandlike material is most commonly used in golf course bunkers or sand traps. “We also have a paving company that uses it,” says Gravitt, “but we sent off our glass samples to the PGA (Professional Golfers’ Association) who approved it. So it goes from CRT monitor to sand trap material.”
Gravitt adds, “We do have an applicable solution to the problem that is very simple and very efficient.
“Our lead content is really low,” he adds, saying GES has TCLP test results that stand up to scrutiny.
Less volume, more difficulty
As CRT technology has lost market share to plasma, LCD and LED screens, it has created several difficulties for recyclers.
“It is difficult to justify large-scale CRT recycling processes unless they have another similar application to justify the build costs,” says Puckett.
“The smart states, like Massachusetts and Vermont, started recycling CRTs more than a decade ago when there were still glass-to-glass markets and CRT reuse markets,” says Ingenthron. “States that waited until recently to start collecting will have a much more difficult time.”
Data collected in the U.K. by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and circulated by Scotland-based Electrical Waste Recycling Group show a drop in CRT monitor collection underway in that nation that may indicate a similar pattern in the U.S.
“The volume of CRT display units is rapidly decreasing and currently stands at 216,945 units entering the waste stream each month,” says Rebecca Patterson of the Electrical Waste Recycling Group. “However, this is predicted to stand at 152,778 units per month by the end of 2014.”
Gravitt acknowledges the change in monitor technology means his feedstock will eventually dwindle, but he sees it as a distant issue. “The production of [new] CRTs has dropped, but over the last two decades they have just inundated the [market],” he says of old CRT devices. “I personally don’t see [the collection of old CRT monitors] going anywhere for another decade. I think there is more out there than what we want. They are sitting in warehouses, and people are looking at them and shaking their heads.”
He adds, “I’d have never invested in this model if it was a short-term goal.”
The eventual shrinking market for obsolete CRT monitors provides yet one more point of discussion between policymakers and recycling advocates who want to ensure such monitors are handled properly and the recyclers who will be called on to make it happen.
The author is the editor of Recycling Today and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.