The California Department of Toxic Substances Control issued emergency regulations in October that permit electronics recyclers to send CRT glass to appropriate landfills for disposal. If processors are unable to recycle their material, they can now send funnel glass to hazardous waste landfills and panel glass to solid waste landfills, provided tests indicate there is no risk of lead contaminating soil or water. The new emergency regulations will expire after two years.
How did California find itself in this regulatory tangle? The early adoption of rules governing the environmentally sound disposal of electronic waste and rapid advances in display technology. California recyclers have been collecting and recycling discarded televisions and computer monitors—devices that typically contain cathode ray tubes, or CRTs—since 2001. At that time, much of the glass from old CRT displays wasrecycled to manufacture new ones. But because businesses and consumers have embraced flat-panel TVs and monitors, the demand for new CRT devices —and CRT glass—has plummeted.
California’s original CRT disposal regulations were established when there was strong demand for CRT glass by legitimate recycling facilities. And while glass-to-glass recycling and lead smelting remain as options for managing this material, dwindling demand means there are far fewer of these facilities in the world and those thatcontinue to operate are doing so at drastically reduced capacity. There are no CRT manufacturers in the United States.
This decline in demand for CRT glass has left many California electronics recyclers with a growing stockpile of glass and few disposal options. CRT televisions and displays may be dead technologies, but they are by no means gone. In 2011 alone, California recyclers generated nearly 53 million pounds of residual CRT glass by dismantling TVs and monitors.
This has intensified the economic and environmental need to develop new strategies for managing the glass from CRT devices collected for recycling.
Regulations Now, Technology Later
Counter to the economic principles at work in other industries where a surplus leads to efficiencies that force prices down, the current glut of CRT glass combined with a lack of demand have strained capacity at the usual glass outlets. The lead smelting and glass manufacturing operations that remain and continue to accept this material recognize their advantage and are charging recyclers more to process CRT glass.
Further complicating the situation is the lead content of CRT glass, which makes championing it for other uses a hard sell.
Several companies are working to develop methods that use either heat or chemicals to extract the lead from CRT glass, but generally these technologies have yet to be perfected and made commercially available. One exception is SWEEEP Kuusakoski’s commercial-scale lead recovery furnace, which opened in late November. Steve Skurnac, president, Sims Recycling Solutions, Americas, believes DTSC’s decision to allow recyclers to send CRT glass to landfills may curb the development of these, or other, technologies. “There’s no incentive to develop new glass recycling technologies if it’s simply going to be dumped in a landfill.”
In the meantime, the challenge facing state regulators and electronics recyclers across the country remains how to handle these relic CRT devices with the market for glass shrinking and the costs of proper processing increasing in a manner that protects public health and the environment. California’s DTSC has concluded that, for now, the best way to balance the economic realities of the glass market with environmental protection, and to prevent widespread mismanagement of the materials, is to allow electronics recyclers to send CRT funnel and panel glass to approved landfills.
The California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, the agency that administers California’s covered electronic waste recycling payment system, is attempting to fully understand the impact DTSC’s emergency regulations will have on the covered electronic waste recycling program.
For now, the same rules that have always governed the recycling program and recycling payment claims will remain in effect. These rules forbid disposal so electronics recyclers that choose to send CRT glass to a landfill will not receive payment from CalRecycle for that material. Even though maximizing recycling is the agency’s primary goal, it acknowledges that the program’s current regulations may need to evolve to accommodate a wider range of CRT glass management, disposition, and documentation options.
New Legislation Means More Glass
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that CRT televisions and monitors still make up nearly half of all electronics ready for end-of-life management. In 2009, about 5 million short tons of obsolete electronics were in storage, with CRT displays being stored at the highest rates according to the agency.
For states that have recently ratified electronic waste recycling legislation and are beginning to collect those tube televisions and monitors from residents in large quantities, California’s modifications to its CRT and CRT glass management rules may be a regulatory bellwether. This surge of new glass will likely place additional strain on already-burdened outlets.
With CRT and CRT glass disposal regulations and the markets for these materials in flux, businesses, consumers, and municipalities need to arm themselves with information so they can make good decisions when recycling their old TVs and monitors.
- Know the law. Unlike other countries, the United States has no national electronics recycling law. Instead, individual states enact laws that vary widely in their complexity, scope, treatment of collected materials, and recycler certification. Understand the applicable laws in your area.
- Decipher the claims. The lead content of CRT glass means it must be handled in a way that protects human health and the environment. Don’t take a recycler’s assertion that their services exceed regulations to protect communities at face value. Ask about worker and environmental safeguards, facility permits, downstream partners, and landfill policies. Understand where your material will be sent and what will happen to it.
- Be wary of bargain prices. Hiring the cheapest electronics recycler to dispose of your outdated devices may appeal to the bottom line, but realize that getting what you pay for is also true of recycling services. That rock bottom price may have come at the expense of worker health and safety or environmental protection standards.
“Sims has made a commitment to shield customers from the potential environmental and legal liability associated with the disposal of this material by continuing to do what the company has always done with CRT glass: Recycle it in a manner that safeguards both public health and the environment,” said Skurnac. “Even though California’s DTSC has made it legal to send CRT glass to landfills, that solution isn’t an option for Sims.”