The HDTV changeover threatens to generate huge amounts of e-waste
An environmental mess looms during the HDTV changeover—unnecessary purchases of new television sets and unsafe disposal of the old ones
Over the July 4 weekend, people flooded to big box retailers in Reno to look for new television sets, most of them in response to the repeated warnings being broadcast by TV stations that consumers could lose their signals next year.
“I’ve got to do it sooner or later,” said a homeowner at Best Buy who identified himself only as Bruce. “Might as well be now.”
But when questioned, he acknowledged that he subscribes to cable in his home. That means he doesn’t need a new set.
Many people aren’t listening to the details in those warnings and are buying television sets they don’t need, possibly because the warnings are framed as warnings. No one seems to be running public service announcements on how to avoid buying a new television.
There is a better way to tell this story to the public, but Congress provided only $5 million to educate the 305 million members of the U.S. public on what they need to know about the HDTV, compared to $400 million by Britain, for a population of fewer than 59 million. That leaves most people in the United States at the mercy of information being provided by television stations. (It might be added that no one in broadcasting or the federal government has devised contingency plans for those groups—the elderly and the working poor—most likely to be cut loose after the changeover in February 2009.)
Avoiding a purchase
For viewers, making sure they really need a set before buying is one of the best ways to avoid generating electronics waste. Most people probably don’t need to make the purchase in order to keep getting television reception.
People can avoid buying a new set by getting a federally-subsidized adapter that can cost in the $50 range, certainly cheaper than buying a new set (the federal subsidy coupon can be obtained at www.dtv2009.gov). A more expensive way to avoid buying a new set is to get cable or satellite service.
But if a viewer does decide to get a new television, then there are ways to get rid of the old set responsibly. The problem is similar to that with other electronics gear—it’s full of beneficial or harmful material that can be harvested instead of just being tossed in a landfill.
According to TechNewsWorld, more than 2 million tons of electronics are thrown away each year, and few assets are recovered from them. Cell phones are routinely tossed in the trash, and since more than 100 million are retired each year, that’s a lot of cell phones trashed. The plastic in them—a petroleum product—can’t then be recycled and re-used.
Some electronic components contain harmful substances. The Environmental Protection Agency has warned about disposing of television sets and computer monitors because of the lead that permeates the glass screens—and the agency classifies broken TV tubes as hazardous materials. Perhaps 40 percent of televisions are pre-1980. They have transformers containing polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), which should be carefully removed and disposed of properly. Chemicals at landfills can leach into the soil, and plastics burned in incinerator programs can pollute the air.
Some states, notably Minnesota, have launched ambitious asset recovery programs for e-waste, complete with at-the-curb pickup. But it’s an expensive process, and neither the broadcasting industry nor the federal government has done much to make sure that the expected flood of old television sets results in much more than trips to the dump.
Who should do it?
One website, Helium.com, is conducting a debate and vote among its readers on the issue, “Should consumers or OEMs (manufacturers) be responsible for paying e-waste fees?” But this is a false, or at least limited, choice. It was the broadcasting industry that lobbied the spectrum changeover through Congress, and Congress which enacted the changeover (see cover story, page 15). Should Congress or television stations be responsible for the e-waste generated by their actions? Television stations often run campaigns for safe disposal of Christmas trees and attack politicians who fail to clean up their campaign signs after elections, but no campaigns are underway by stations now to provide ways of responsibly disposing of television sets.
Only one manufacturer, Sony, has shown much interest in a thorough asset-recovery program for the electronics they generate.
The site MyGreenElectronics.org has a find-your-local-e-waste-recycler feature. For the Reno and Carson corridor’s zip codes, it lists three private firms that deal in asset recovery—Redemtech Inc. in Sparks, Global Investment Recovery in Reno, and Computer Corp in New Empire east of Carson City. It also lists the Douglas County Transfer Station south of Gardnerville.
But a spokesperson for the Lockwood landfill that serves Reno and Sparks says there is a simpler procedure. Waste Management, Inc., the contractor which operates local waste disposal for the cities, and the Sony Corporation have a working agreement for sets to be separated out from other waste and its assets recovered, its harmful substances safely removed.
The customer using the landfill must take responsibility for making sure not to toss the TV set into the general landfill. At the entrance to the Lockwood landfill or the Reno transfer station on Commercial Row between Sage and Sutro, the customer needs to tell the gatekeeper, “I have a television set [or other electronics component] here, and I want it disposed of properly.”
Like other trash, there is a fee involved—unless it’s Sony equipment.
“I can tell you that it will be disposed of properly,” said Waste Management community relations manager Michael Genera. “We do have a program in place. Currently, we are only accepting the Sony products for free.”
He said other corporations’ products will be accepted at the local sites, but there is a fee for them—$10 for each television set.
There’s another way to get rid of a television set without throwing it away. Post it on Freecycle.org, a site devoted to “people who are giving (and getting) stuff for free in their own towns and thus keeping good stuff out of landfills.” The site reports that there are 2,396 participants in Reno, 668 in Carson City.