Were America's Millions of Analog TVs Recycled?

"Were America's Millions of Analog TVs Recycled?" That's the question we began asking eight years ago as the United States converted from analog to digital television (DTV), obsoleting the traditional CRT-based sets. The answer now appears to be "no" due to consumer behavior and a declining market for CRT by-products. The image at the right, taken at a collection point for a university student housing change-over in August 2016, illustrates that there are still a lot of analog CRTs out there.

United States' analog television broadcasting ended in 2009 but CRT TVs still linger. As late as February 2014, a Consumer Electronics Association (now Consumer Technology Association) survey of US households found that "...41% reported having at least one CRT TV ...Analysis of the results suggests there are approximately 77 million CRT TVs still in U.S. households...an independent analysis by the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER) finds approximately 6 billion pounds of CRT televisions...are currently in U.S. households."

2011 report from the US Environmental Protection Agency looked at recycling rates over the 2006-2010 period. Recycling of computer monitors improved from 22% to 31% over that period, while recycling rates for TV's barely budged - 16% to 17%.

The New York Times reported in March 2013 on one factor depressing recycling rates. "In 2009, after television broadcasters turned off their analog signals nationwide in favor of digital, millions of people threw away their old televisions and replaced them with sleeker flat-screen models. Since then, thousands of pounds of old televisions and other electronic waste have been surreptitiously unloaded at landfills in Nevada and Ohio and on roadsides in California and Maine."

The problem is that demand for CRT recycling by-products has dried up. "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…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."

More about DTV and Green ICT.

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old dtv.gov logoVertatique has been covering the Green ICT implications of America's conversion to digital television (DTV) for the past three years: consumer e-waste, broadcaster e-waste, and consumer energy consumption*. We noted in 2008 the EPA estimate of 99.1 million (analog) TVs in storage at the end of 2007. This number is likely to have been significantly altered by the DTV conversion completed in June 2009.

The e-waste implication of the DTV conversion was not well considered during America's DTV planning. One can anticipate that energy/environmental impact will become a consideration in future e-infrastructure policy deliberations and countries' DTV transition experiences can provide valuable data.

(In a bizarre twist on this issue, death by analog TV appeared to be on the rise in the United States toward the end of 2009. Apparently, older, heavier analog CRTs are being relegated to children's rooms and other places where the support furniture is inadequate.)

The National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER) offers the Per Capita Collection Index (PCCI) "designed to measure changes in the amount of used electronic equipment, such as computers, televisions and monitors collected in representative programs across the United States." It reports that recycling by weight increased 8% in 2009 over 2008. Is this a positive or negative indicator in the year tens of millions of heavy analog TVs were rendered obsolete by the DTV conversion?

The NCER cautions against an extrapolation of its e-waste weight numbers, but some back-of-the-envelope calculations were not reassuring about the fate of those analog TVs. In fact, an absolute increase in recycling poundage does not imply an increase in the recycling rate if the amount of TVs disposed increased proportionally. The EPA estimated that back in 2007 only 18% of TVs by weight were recycled; the rest were landfilled.

The 2009 EPA initiative described in the comment below is no more reassuring. If we assume an average weight of 50 lbs. per TV, it accounted for only 0.16 million units.

Of course, there will soon be a reason to scrap that new DTV: 3DTV. Bloomberg reported about John Shegerian, Chairman and CEO of Electronic Recyclers International (ERI):

"after speaking recently with numerous television manufacturers, he believes that the already hotly anticipated 3D Television technology, set to sell significantly faster than initially anticipated, will follow suit in terms of bringing new opportunities for the electronic waste recycling industry."

(Earlier in the article, Shegerian had praised the iPad as an e-waste generator.)

Click on the "recycle" tag under this post's title to learn more about e-waste/cyberwaste, including dramatic photos.

* Two consumer energy issues are the millions of analog-to-digital converter boxes being attached to older TVs and increased power consumptions from displays. While an LCD display of the same screen area and resolution as the CRT it replaces will consume less energy, many replacements are actually upgrades requiring increased energy consumption for higher pixel counts (HDTV vs. SDTV), increased screen area, and/or more power-intensive technologies (plasma vs. LCD). California is considering display power regulations that may effectively ban sales of large plasma displays in the state.