When the hatch popped open on Louis Cornelius' SUV, there were four TVs piled up in the back, all destined for recycling. "My wife wanted to be up to date on the electronics," he says.
Sumiko Flodin's 35-year-old TV "still works," but she bought a new 19-inch set at Best Buy and wanted to empty out her living room. "I don't like the idea of having all this stuff hanging around."
When Virginia Ritchie decided to clear out her old TVs, she loaded up the big one that didn't work anymore, "and then I found three TVs in the basement to get rid of."
For each of them, and most of the 300 or so people who came to an "electronic waste recycling event" on a chilly Saturday here, the motivation was simple: cleaning up. But for the Environmental Protection Agency and activists worried about soil, water and air pollution, it's more complicated.
Televisions carelessly disposed of can be toxic to the environment. A huge backlog of unused old ones (99.1 million, the EPA says) is sitting around in people's homes.
And later this year — either on Feb. 17 or on June 12 if Congress passes a delay — the USA will switch from analog to digital TV transmission. The number of unwanted TVs will go even higher as consumers upgrade to sets capable of receiving high-definition broadcasts.
Though a TV set is benign in the living room, it's not when it is broken up to reach the reusable materials inside. There's a lot of lead, a bit of barium, cadmium, chromium, traces of gold and even mercury in the lamps on some flat screens.
The best way to deal with them is not to throw them away at all but to keep using them, says John Cross of EPA's Office of Resource Conservation and Recovery. Buying a converter box or getting cable or satellite TV will keep a TV useful for years. But if TVs are discarded, the federal agency wants to make sure the materials in them are recycled.
The problem, according to a Government Accountability Office report last year, is that the EPA's "enforcement is lacking." That has left most of the regulatory work up to the states, only some of which license and audit recycling companies.
The GAO report found that although some electronics are handled responsibly, "a substantial quantity ends up in countries where disposal practices are unsafe to workers and dangerous to the environment." Barbara Kyle of the San Francisco-based Electronics TakeBack Coalition puts that quantity at close to 90%.
EPA environmental scientist Robert Tonetti says it's not that bad: "There are hundreds of honorable recyclers in the United States, and some scoundrels."
Taking the set apart
Under EPA rules, cathode-ray tube TVs — anything that's not flat screen — aren't supposed to be put into landfills, but households are exempt. It's also illegal to export them for recycling unless the destination country agrees and the EPA has been notified. But the GAO found that recycling companies routinely circumvent the rule.
Six states have passed laws making it illegal to throw a TV away, and another five are expected to do so in 2010, Kyle says. Eighteen states, as well as New York City, have ordered electronic recycling programs. But "not all the laws include televisions, which in the year of digital conversion is unfortunate," Kyle says.