CRT Overabundance Plaguing E-Recyclers

As cathode ray tube (CRT) television displays have been replaced by flat screens using liquid crystal and other technologies, it has become harder for recyclers to find processors for the growing quantities of leaded glass in TVs and computer monitors collected for recycling. Far more of the bulky, old-fashioned TV tubes are being collected than ever before but, since leaded glass is no longer used to make new TVs, there are fewer options for recycling CRTs.

Two recent reports painted the problem with differing degrees of severity. A March survey of recyclers found about 20 percent were having problems dealing with the material. That survey, conducted by the Brattleboro, Vermont-based Northeast Recycling Council for the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), a Washington-based trade group, indicated that recyclers were storing 68,000 tons of CRTs awaiting processing or shipment, but that most, 72 percent, were having no trouble finding downstream vendors. Recyclers that did report problems said pricing was the major issue, and it affected small operators more than big ones.

Less than 10 percent of the recyclers reported being completely unable to find downstream vendors of CRT glass processing in the last 12 months, according to Lynn Rubinstein, executive director of the non-profit council. Only modest volumes of old CRTs were being stored, and this might have been done only to accumulate sufficient quantity for efficient shipping and processing. “I’m not saying this should be ignored,” Rubinstein said. “But are we seeing large volumes of material coming in and being abandoned? If that’s happening, it’s not obvious from the survey results we received.”

Another report, released in December by TransparentPlanet, a Washington-based electronic waste consulting and research organization, painted a grimmer picture. It said about 330,000 tons of CRT glass was being stored. Lauren Roman, managing director of TransparentPlanet, described the situation as “very serious,” and said a critical lack of recycling infrastructure could lead to loosening state and federal rules against landfilling lead-contaminated CRTs. “This could undermine all of the U.S.’ progress in e-recycling,” Roman said.

The issue is getting attention from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). EPA joined the CEA in announcing a “CRT Challenge” offering a $10,000 prize for the best idea for recycling CRTs. The $10,000 is a drop in the bucket compared to the costs manufacturers could face in a couple of different scenarios. One such scenario is if dumping or abandonment of CRTs creates sites requiring federal or state clean-up that manufacturers and others would ultimately pay for. Another is if the fees manufacturers, along with retailers, are required to pay to recycle CRTs are increased. Either way, the cost could be substantial. Roman’s report suggested a range of $85 million to $360 million just to cover recycling the current backlog of CRTs.

While manufacturers aren’t volunteering to pay that much more to clean up the over-supply yet, the CEA has recognized the existence of some sort of problem. “I don’t know if I’d call it a glut at this point, but I’d definitely say the CRT market is stressed,” said CEA vice president Walter Alcorn.

The main reason for the situation is two-fold. First, there are a lot more CRTs entering the recycling stream. One reason is the wholesale replacement of CRTs as the display technology of choice for computers, televisions and other electronics. Alcorn said Americans essentially stopped buying CRT-based products several years ago. As a result, CEA expects about a million tons of old CRTs to be disposed of in the next several years. Many are headed for recycling, thanks to state take-back laws and increased recycling efforts by electronics makers and retailers. Some states have also banned landfilling of the lead-rich CRT glass.

At the same time CRTs turned from useful technology into obsolescent junk, the number of companies processing the leaded glass declined drastically. At one time, old CRTs were worth money and domestic and international recyclers paid to get them, mostly for remanufacturing into new CRTs. As demand for new CRTs collapsed, so did CRT processing.

Now recyclers who collect the CRTs have to pay processors to take the leaded glass. And the fees are apparently not enough to support a viable industry. Indian industrial conglomerate Videocon is the most significant remaining processor and, Roman said, it’s only a matter of time until it stops making new CRTs. “When Videocon in India stops producing new CRT products from old CRT glass, the U.S. will lose 70 percent of its market capacity and very little new capacity is being established,” she said.

Meanwhile, Americans are said to have more than 200 million old CRT televisions and monitors stashed in closets, attics and garages. Eventually, these will hit the recycling stream and some people worry that they won’t have any way to recycle them when they do.

It would help if someone could find new uses for old CRTs. Hence, the CRT Challenge, a contest by CEA and the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries to find new uses for CRTs. This is the second such challenge. The first, in 2011, awarded two new approaches for separating glass from lead, and another for making radiation-blocking bricks for X-ray rooms from lead-filled CRT glass. None of those solved the problem, but CEA is hoping a second challenge, winner of which will be announced in fall 2013, could help.

Meanwhile, some recyclers have stopped accepting CRTs. Others are looking to sign up more manufacturers to pay them for taking CRTs, so they can pay downstream processors. Roman said most downstream processors send CRTs overseas to Videocon, which is a temporary solution. The other major users for old CRTs, lead smelters, have a limited appetite, Alcorn said.

The long-term outlook is both clouded and clarified by the finite supply of old CRTs. Once the last CRT is recycled, the glut clearly will be over. But that will also mean the last remaining CRT processors, whether they are in India or elsewhere, will have to find new businesses. Roman said the proposed recycling technologies require multi-million-dollar investments, but that the current supply of old CRTs could produce profits relatively quickly. Longer-term, however, the technology must be adaptable for other uses to keep investors from being discouraged by the diminishing CRT supply.

What’s likely to happen? Roman fears that without strategic planning and market development incentives, wholesale landfilling will result. The CEA is likely more worried its members would pay more for end-of-life recycling of their products. Long-term, flat screen displays, many of which contain toxic mercury and are even less amenable to recycling, promise to raise new issues. Meanwhile, the search goes on for new uses for the mountains of outmoded displays. “We want to see strong markets and demand for CRT glass,” Alcorn said. “We don’t want to see it go to waste.”

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