A mounting hazard
Disposing of televisions and computer monitors presents a sticky environmental challenge
Everyone who has had to dispose of an obsolete, unwanted computer has probably experienced the urge to take it out to a field and smash it or throw it off a cliff and watch it shatter like a pumpkin on the rocks below. It would be fun to watch.
Unfortunately, says the environmentalist group Californians Against Waste (CAW), people who give in to such urges, or even just leave their aging monitors on the side of the road, create a huge problem for the environment—and for their county’s pocketbook. Due to the explosion of the computer age and the rapid development of computer technology, last week’s now-obsolete computers are getting tossed out with the trash more and more frequently. They are starting to pile up, and there is no easy way to get rid of them.
CAW calls the buildup of obsolete computers and televisions electronic waste, or “e-waste.” According to a CAW handout, “California households have more than 6 million obsolete computer monitors and television sets stockpiled in their homes. … Three-quarters of all computers ever purchased in the United States remain stockpiled.”
A small group of people, consisting of representatives from CAW and from the city of Chico, as well as from A/C Industrial Services Corp., met on a windy morning in March at Butte County’s hazardous-waste facility to discuss the problem. The facility is currently used to collect and store e-waste, among other toxic materials; dozens of old computer monitors and television sets sat in shrink-wrapped piles everywhere.
The problem with e-waste, said CAW representative Jessica Fiedor, comes from the lead-lined glass in the picture tube. Lead is a toxin, she said, so if a picture tube ends up smashed in a field or buried with other trash in a landfill, the lead can leak into the ground and possibly contaminate the soil and water supply. Thus, computer and TV picture tubes have to be recycled a certain way, she said, and California is more than slightly lacking in the means to carry out the task.
“The recycling incentive really needs work,” she said. “There are just a few [recycling facilities] in the state of California, and really nationwide.”
A/C Industrial Services runs Butte County’s hazardous-waste facility, which is located next to the Chico Municipal Airport. A/C Industrial Technical Manager Malcom Maxwell said the city of Chico contracted with the company in 1994 to build the facility in order to collect and handle common household hazardous wastes such as oil, asbestos and paint.
“We take anything you can possibly think of,” he said. “Then a few years ago we geared up for CRTs.”
CRTs (cathode ray tubes, or picture tubes) became a recognized hazard only about two years ago, he said. Butte County’s facility now makes shipments to a disposal facility in Sacramento every two weeks, trucking between 120 and 150 computer monitors and 130 to 190 TV sets per truck load. The company has transported more than 194,000 pounds of electronic trash in the past year, Maxwell said, at a cost of more than $48,400.
“But that’s not including the labor of our guys to shrink wrap, load onto trucks and transport it,” he said. Tack on an extra $20,000 for that.
One of the issues in question is the source of funding for the recycling operation. According to the city’s Public Works Department, it is generated through the tipping fee people pay for using the landfill. Maxwell says this generates enough to cover waste coming from residential users, while businesses handle their own disposal expenses. Residential users do not pay a fee to drop off e-waste.
CAW Executive Director Mark Murray describes what the facility in Sacramento does to make a typical computer disappear.
“All we’re really doing in California is dismantling it,” he said. “People are physically—with screwdrivers—dismantling the computers and reducing them to their component parts.”
The parts are all sent to individual recyclers to be handled separately, while the picture tubes are smashed to pieces, he said. The shards of leaded glass are then melted down, at which point the lead can be separated from the glass. The lead is then used to make new CRTs.
Even though television picture tubes have been around for decades, their disposal has not been an issue in the past, CAW executive director Murray said, because they tend to have a long shelf life—around 10 or 20 years—and are not thrown away often. Until recently, they have just been thrown away with the rest of the garbage, and the state Department of Toxic Substances Control, which monitors things like household hazardous waste, did not notice.
“Lead has been a hazardous waste for two decades,” Murray said. “It has been technically illegal to dispose of devices with lead in them for those two decades.”
But, because of the infrequency of television dumps, the state did not see the hazard in throwing away old TV sets.
Computers, on the other hand, become obsolete after only a matter of months, Murray said, and are tossed out much more frequently. So it was not until well into the computer age, around March 2001, that the state department made the connection between computer-smashing and hazardous waste, Murray said. Since then many counties, including Butte, have been trying to figure out a way to collect old CRTs to make sure they don’t end up as part of the scenery. At the same time, organizations like CAW are working toward being able to handle the influx brought in by the waste collectors.
“We’re hoping we can build a better infrastructure,” Murray said. “We want to make sure we’re diverting [the hazard] from the landfills.”
But the movement is new, so it has yet to find much success.
“At best we’re only getting 15 to 20 percent [of old CRTs],” Murray said. If that level can be pushed up to between 70 and 90 percent, he said, it would be possible to build up the infrastructure, opening up jobs and building momentum.
However, Maxwell says that an improperly dispatched television’s chances of ending up at a landfill are totally unpredictable.
“It depends on where it lands on somebody’s property,” he said. “[Whether] it’s on city property or on private property. … We’ve had drop-offs right in front of the facility.”
Murray said one major problem with e-waste is that it is expensive to dispose of properly—around $10-$15 per unit—and no one is sure who should get the bill.
“You could pass it to consumers,” he said, “But some people might be inclined not to do this.” Many people would rather just leave their old TV in the garage or dump it somewhere rather than pay to do it the right way, he said.
Maxwell pointed out another alternative, which is to fund it through the purchase of new products.
“It might be easier just for the general public to go back to Circuit City to drop something off,” he said. The manufacturer would then pay to have the old products recycled. But this, he said, would just drive up the costs of new products, which puts the cost burden back on the consumer. Another option is simply to have the general public pay for it in the form of taxes, but everyone knows how popular taxes are.
“I don’t see how this is going to work out simply," Maxwell said.