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OM in the News: Where Does Your Old CRT or TV Go When it Dies?

March 26, 2013
Old TVs waiting for recycling in Philadelphia

Old TVs waiting for recycling in Philadelphia

Last year, inspectors from California’s hazardous waste agency were visiting an electronics recycling company for a routine review when they came across a warehouse the size of a football field, packed with tens of thousands of old computer monitors and televisions. As recently as a few years ago, broken monitors and televisions like those were being recycled profitably. The big, glassy funnels inside these machines —  CRTs — were melted down and turned into new ones. But flat-screen technology has made those monitors and televisions obsolete, writes The New York Times (March 19, 2013), decimating the demand for the recycled tube glass used in them and creating a “glass tsunami” as stockpiles of the useless material accumulate across the country.

Small changes in the marketplace can suddenly transform a product into a liability and demonstrate the difficulties regulators face in keeping up with rapid shifts. The growing stockpiles, much of which contain lead that has zero economic value, find few buyers. The bulk of this waste is being stored, sent to landfills or smelters, or disposed of in other ways that are environmentally destructive. Instead of recycling the waste, many recyclers have been illegally storing millions of the monitors in warehouses. Each CRT includes up to 8 pounds of lead.

In 2000, there were 12 plants in the U.S. and 13 more worldwide that were taking old TVs and CRTs and using the glass to produce new tubes. Now, there are only 2 plants in India doing so. Although the larger solution to the problem is for technology companies to design products that last longer, use fewer toxic components and are more easily recycled, the industry is heading in the opposite direction. CRTs have been largely replaced by flat panels that use fluorescent lights with highly toxic mercury in them.

The federal government, among the world’s largest producer of electronic waste, disposes more than 10,000 computers a week, some of which are dumped illegally in developing countries.

Discussion questions:

1. If you were in charge of sustainability in your firm, how would you deal with discarded computers?

2. Relate the issue to life cycle assessment (see Chapter 5).

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