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Old TVs leave a toxic legacy

Ian Urbina | March 26, 2013
Recyclers can't keep up with a deluge of discarded toxic televisions and monitors.

Graham Kaplan of Basel Action Network takes a computer monitor fitted with a tracking device to a recycling centre.

Graham Kaplan of Basel Action Network takes a computer monitor fitted with a tracking device to a recycling centre. Photo: New York Times

Last year, two inspectors from California's hazardous waste agency were visiting an electronics recycling company near Fresno for a routine review of paperwork when they came across a warehouse the size of a football field, packed with tens of thousands of old computer monitors and televisions.

The crumbling cardboard boxes, stacked in teetering rows, 3 metres high and more than 4 metres deep, were so sprawling that the inspectors needed mobile phones to keep track of each other. The layer of broken glass on the floor and the lead-laden dust in the air were so thick that the inspectors soon left over safety concerns. Weeks later, the owner of the recycling company disappeared, abandoning the waste, and leaving behind a toxic hazard and a costly clean-up for the state and the warehouse's owner.

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.

Discarded: Televisions and computers in Philadelphia.

Discarded: Televisions and computers in Philadelphia. Photo: New York Times

But flat-screen technology has made those monitors and televisions obsolete, destroying 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.

The predicament has highlighted how small changes in the marketplace can suddenly transform a product into a liability and demonstrates the difficulties that federal and state environmental regulators face in keeping up with these rapid shifts.


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