Orphaned Waste

April 22nd marks the thirty-fifth anniversary of the first Earth Day. While few Americans pay much attention to this date anymore, it is certainly a time for reflection on all the big screw ups in the history of the Great American Economy. Nuclear power’s a good one. Nuclear power plants get so "hot" after about forty or fifty years that they have to be moth-balled (meaning they are covered in concrete two-feet thick and the property they rest on is cordoned off for at least 300 years). The plan is also to bury existing waste from these plants under Yucca Mountain in Nevada—trucking spent fuel rods and such thousands of miles for the next several decades.

Or take mining precious metals, one of the most polluting and energy intensive activities ever conceived. To make one wedding ring out of raw gold requires 20 tons of mining waste. Then there’s the war in Iraq—untold hundreds of billions of dollars so that the United States of America can maintain a strategic foothold in the middle of an Arab world that supplies us with 46% of our petroleum.

However, Earth Day-35 is also time to think about something a bit more mundane: those little TVs you have strategically placed in your kitchen, living room, bedroom, and den. You’re probably going to be getting rid of them very soon. The original plan was that by the end of 2006 all of the country’s 1,240-plus TV stations are required to begin giving back the analog signals they were loaned by the federal government beginning in the 1940s. They will be purchasing the rights to new digital signals.

The timetable has been adjusted a bit since 1999 when this plan was promulgated (an 85% market penetration clause was recently put in place and they are still working the bugs out of big media’s concerns about movie pirating). Rest assured, though, in effect, the move is on to force us all to deal with digital TV—whether we like it or not.


Convert or Suck It Up

There will be two options in the new digital TV world for you: Option 1 is spend several hundred dollars on a digital to analog signal converter so that you can watch high-definition shows the old fashioned way. But it’s the TV industry’s hope that you choose the second option: just suck it up, shell out the several thousand dollars (you do that anyway every few years for a new computer) and take advantage of your destiny as a 21st century TV-watching American.

Unfortunately, no one can agree on what you should do with your old analog units. They don’t want them in the trash. The consumer electronics industry won’t support a national recycling infrastructure. And the federal government can’t seem to figure out how to set standards for collection that are business-friendly and protect the environment at the same time.

I Don’t Want My SD-MTV

There are an estimated 300 million standard-definition television sets in use throughout the United States today. According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States, roughly 265 million of these TVs can be found in homes. Another 35 million or so are located in commercial and institutional settings like hospital patient rooms, airports, hotels, bars, doctor’s and dentist’s offices, and stadium complexes. That’s roughly one set for every person in the country.

300 million televisions represents a minimum investment of $90 billion by consumers and businesses over the past two decades. And this is just the money we’ve spent on video entertainment. There are numerous other display devices that will require replacing as the true power of high-definition digital imaging becomes obvious—ticket terminals, closed-circuit surveillance monitors, cash registers, airport arrival-departure displays, and TV broadcast monitors. Some industry experts have estimated that when you add computer monitors at work and at home, these other video displays, and the good old TV, it’s very likely that there are close to a billion screens out there that will be affected during the next five years by the switch to super-duper, hallucinogenic screens.


In Your Dreams

To paraphrase the poet Delmore Schwartz, "…in dreams begin problems." The HDTV phenomenon is just the latest example of what those in resource management circles call orphaned waste. In the eighties it was mostly small household appliances—toaster ovens, microwaves, electric can openers, stereo components, and old telephones. By the nineties the list had grown to include computer equipment, fax machines, cell phones and personal copiers. Now it’s your TV. We spend billions of dollars on these items every year, there ought to at least be a way to recycle them. But the normal electronic device in America has anywhere from 50-250 distinct materials in it. It’s just not that easy.

"All right. Big deal," you say. "So we put the little guys in the garage until they figure out what to do; replace them with one we can hang on our wall. We want a home cinematic experience. It’s worth it!"

But how long are you really going to keep a heap of useless junk around your house? Go look at what you’ve already accumulated. Most likely you’ve got a pile of two or three generations of computers, printers, modems, cables and monitors taking up space. Add several TVs and all of a sudden you’re looking at close to the same footprint as the family car.

"We’ll throw the little buggers out then. It’s okay. It’s just a little bit more trash. It won’t matter."

Here’s the rub: if everyone does what you’re going to do, that’s 300 million television sets in the trash—an excess of 12 billion pounds to take to your local landfill or incinerator—six million tons. Assuming a national average disposal charge of $50 per ton—which is probably low—that will cost local governments and the business community at least $300 million during the transition phase. This at a time when most Americans think they’re paying too much in taxes already.

But the real problem is that your television set is considered hazardous waste. The cathode ray tube (CRT), which is what your TV really is, contains trace quantities of toxic heavy metals like cadmium and mercury, and it is also composed of lead—4 to 8 pounds of lead. There’s lead in the glass, which isn’t too dangerous, but there’s also lead solder connecting the front piece of glass (the face-plate) to the glass funnel that tiny quantities of phosphor are shot through to give you an image on the screen. In laboratory hazardous waste tests, this solder breaks down in a bath of liquid simulating what goes on underground in a landfill. And if you burn a television in a solid waste incinerator, all these bad chemicals either go up the stack or remain as constituent components of the ash residue.


Neuro-toxic TV

According to the National Safety Council, lead is considered a neurotoxin, especially to young children and pregnant women. Lead poisoning for children and fetuses is of particular concern because it can permanently affect brain and nervous system development. It can also damage a number of vital organs. Even low levels of lead exposure can have an impact on IQ and create learning disabilities. For adults (who can handle much larger doses), lead can increase blood pressure, cause fertility difficulties, nerve disorders, joint pain, and create emotional and cognitive problems. While very little is known about the contribution of CRTs to lead concentrations in the atmosphere, there is concern about lead leeching from landfills into groundwater over time (the next 30-40 years) and quantities of lead that may be emitted in mass-burn trash incinerators.

In fact, the problem with video waste is not new. For the past decade or so environmental activists, health professionals, and public policy planners have been struggling to properly manage orphaned junk computer screens. Computer monitors have somewhat different chemistries than televisions, but at their core, both types of video device are composed of CRTs.

Broken monitors and TVs are the bastard children of the electronic scrap industry. Besides copper wire and small amounts of precious metals, most of the materials that make up a video display screen—plastic, lead-embedded glass, circuit boards, etc. are difficult to recycle.

The average computer monitor costs about $15 to process into its constituent elements. The average TV is more like $20-$30. The cost to send a video screen to the local dump ranges from $1.00 to $1.50. When you add to this the fact that the US EPA and Congress cannot seem to fix the nation’s hazardous waste laws which provide an exemption for household and "small quantity generators," it may be virtually impossible to create incentives for citizens to keep their TVs out of the trash. This is where policy makers have been hard at work. This is where Earth Day-35 comes in.

Already, states like Maine, Massachusetts, California, Florida, and Minnesota have passed laws either banning CRTs from landfills outright or defining methods for the proper collection and recycling of TVs and monitors. The consumer electronic industry in Europe has to deal with something called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR)—various methods for forcing companies that profit from obsolescence in the European Union to fund the responsible management of unwanted material.

In the U.S., a number of national environmental groups have tried for years to work with industry to establish voluntary EPR systems. Moderate success has been achieved with used tires and automobile batteries, but E-scrap is a beast unto itself. An enormous stakeholder effort over more than a ten-year period of time recently failed at the last minute to achieve a consensus on how best to manage, market and fund recycling programs for obsolete computers and consumer electronics. The idea was fairly simple: create an up-front fee for new purchases that would then be used to cover the cost of recycling. But industry trade groups, possibly emboldened by the 2004 elections, refused to step up to the plate responsibly. There is extreme frustration by the environmentalists, public health professionals, and consumer advocates involved in the process. And the electronics recycling industry, one of the fastest growing business sectors in the economy, is also stymied because of the lack of certainty these policy failures have created.


The Immunity Switch

Computer waste is what has heretofore been pulling policy maker’s chains for the most part. The truth is, though, that a large number of working old computers are donated to nonprofit reuse and education groups who retrofit and clean them up then redistribute them to needy families and nonprofits. The shift from analog to digital signals will make the TV issue a completely different situation. No one is going to want standard definition by 2010. "Sports, movies and live music," one Best Buy salesman said to me the other day. "Large high-definition screens make you feel like you’re there. Some people spend thousands of dollars a year on season tickets and rock concerts. Why do that when you get the same feeling in your own home?"

Which all brings us to 2006 and just beyond. It does not look like the business world is interested in solving the problem of TV trash. The EPA and Congress do not seem able to solve this problem either. Certainly, the Bush administration won’t be lifting a finger. And yet, make no mistake about it: everyone wants to profit from the promised surge in spending HDTV will provide the country. If every American household were to buy a new HDTV over the next five years or so, it would mean a cash infusion of over $100 billion dollars into the national economy.

All of this is to say that we are rapidly reaching a point in the evolution of environmental policy whereby the ridiculousness of our actions and our unwillingness to grapple with problems is going to shine the light on every single one of us. We tend to view environmental issues as situations that business and government need to work out. But there is a third player in the mix: us—the voting, consuming, pleasure-seeking public. Maybe the best thing you can do this Earth Day is make a pact with your loved ones: "Let’s turn off our television sets and never turn them on again. That way, we’ll be immune to all the advertising for HDTV we’re going to see over the next five years. We won’t even know that the end of 2006 matters. We won’t care about TV trash. We’ll just leave our little analog units where they are as a reminder of those complex days back in the early 21st century when people thought The Apprentice and American Idol were important. Let’s just read books and magazines and look at porn on the web. What we don’t know can’t hurt us. We can always donate our old computers to a church or a Salvation Army."

The alternative is at least potentially interesting. Imagine if no one gave a crap and that on trash day just after the holidays in early January 2007, you could go outside and look down your street to see nothing but black plastic and glass cubes sitting on the sidewalk waiting to be taken away—wherever away is. What art. What beauty. What the hell.