Flat-screen technology has made monitors and televisions like the ones seen here in Porterville, California, obsolete, crushing the demand for the recycled tube glass in them and creating stockpiles of the useless material across the country. Photo: Gary Kazanjian for The New York Times

By IAN URBINA
18 March 2013
     
(The New York Times) – Last year, two inspectors from California’s hazardous waste agency were visiting an electronics recycling company near Fresno for a routine review of paperwork when they came across a warehouse the size of a football field, packed with tens of thousands of old computer monitors and televisions.

The crumbling cardboard boxes, stacked in teetering rows, 9 feet high and 14 feet deep, were so sprawling that the inspectors needed cellphones to keep track of each other. The layer of broken glass on the floor and the lead-laden dust in the air was so thick that the inspectors soon left over safety concerns. Weeks later, the owner of the recycling company disappeared, abandoning the waste, and leaving behind a toxic hazard and a costly cleanup for the state and the warehouse’s owner.

As recently as a few years ago, broken monitors and televisions like those piled in the warehouse were being recycled profitably. The big, glassy funnels inside these machines — known as cathode ray tubes, or CRTs — were melted down and turned into new ones.

But flat-screen technology has made those monitors and televisions obsolete, decimating the demand for the recycled tube glass used in them and creating what industry experts call a “glass tsunami” as stockpiles of the useless material accumulate across the country.

The predicament has highlighted how small changes in the marketplace can suddenly transform a product into a liability and demonstrates the difficulties that federal and state environmental regulators face in keeping up with these rapid shifts.

“Lots of smaller recyclers are in over their heads, and the risk that they might abandon their stockpiles is very real,” said Jason Linnell of the Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse, an organization that represents state environmental regulators, electronics manufacturers and recyclers. In February, the group sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency asking for immediate help dealing with the rapidly growing stockpiles of the glass, much of which contains lead.

With so few buyers of the leaded glass from the old monitors and televisions, recyclers have collected payments from states and electronics companies to get rid of the old machines. A small number of recyclers have developed new technology for cleaning the lead from the tube glass, but the bulk of this waste is being stored, sent to landfills or smelters, or disposed of in other ways that experts say are environmentally destructive.

In 2004, recyclers were paid more than $200 a ton to provide glass from these monitors for use in new cathode ray tubes. The same companies now have to pay more than $200 a ton to get anyone to take the glass off their hands.

So instead of recycling the waste, many recyclers have been storing millions of the monitors in warehouses, according to industry officials and experts. The practice is sometimes illegal since there are federal limits on how long a company can house the tubes, which are environmentally dangerous. Each one can include up to eight pounds of lead.

The scrap metal industry estimates that the amount of electronic waste has more than doubled in the past five years.

A little over a decade ago, there were at least 12 plants in the United States and 13 more worldwide that were taking these old televisions and monitors and using the cathode ray tube glass to produce new tubes. But now, there are only two plants in India doing this work. [more]

Unwanted Electronic Gear Rising in Toxic Piles

1 comments :

  1. Anonymous said...

    This is happening all over the world. And not just with electronics, but with virtually everything man-made.

    Some of these piles are the sizes of entire mountain chains, often exported and hidden away in foreign countries that have agreed to accept our waste.

    In the book, "The World Without Us", the author reveals that it will take hundreds of thousands of years for the man-made wastes we've produced to break down, while continuing to pollute the environment.

    Our civilization is not sustainable, even with "recycling" and we are already committed to hundreds of thousands of years of toxic soils.  

 

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