Jacob Cherry, a third-generation recycler and CEO of Universal Waste Management, the Oakland company that organized the collection event, says he has seen "people just putting their television in a big black plastic bag so they wouldn't get caught."
At the El Cerrito event, collection coordinator Enrique Aparicio had a crew of seven lined up in the parking lot, ready to swarm over each car, truck and SUV as it passed from sign-in station to drop-off point.
At the company's warehouse in Oakland, Cherry's staff dismantles everything down to its constituent pieces for shipping to processors. Cesar Garcia, a dismantler, lines them up on a long metal table. He first uses an electric screwdriver to unfasten the plastic housing. Sometimes it takes a few whacks with a hammer to loosen the really old ones.
Next he pulls out a pair of wire snips and clips all the cords, which go into a waiting bin to be relieved of their copper later. Now comes the fun part: breaking the vacuum seal on the cathode ray tube. "If you don't, when you drop one of these, it goes off like a bomb," Cherry says.
Garcia takes an awl and a hammer and carefully positions it in the hole left when the air was sucked out of the tube when it was made. A quick tap releases the vacuum. The back portion of the tube, called the funnel, has a thick layer of lead paint, about 5 to 7 pounds worth. It and the screen go to Mexico, where they are crushed, the lead recovered and the glass melted down for reuse in new cathode-ray tubes.
The yoke at the back is pulled out and the copper wire recovered. Then comes the "big bad guy" in the industry, the TV's circuit board. "This has some valuable materials in it, and also some that can be toxic," Cherry says. Here's where recycling can get less than green.
Recycling can be done quick and dirty to get the valuable metals. That's what happens when companies refine "the old-fashioned way," in Cherry's words.
"You throw it in a big vat of acid, and it effectively melts all of the different materials and you're left with metals and sludge." The metals are sold, the sludge is waste. "Oftentimes, when that vat of acid is spent, it's literally dumped," soaking into the ground and polluting the water table, Cherry says.
"The old-fashioned way" is frequently how workshops in developing nations recover resalable materials in TVs and computers. According to the Basel Convention, an outgrowth of the United Nations' environmental program, when old TVs and electronics are shipped to China, India and Africa, their precious and recyclable metals are recovered in ways that are environmentally hazardous, poisoning workers, the air and the land. Environmentalists and activists want Congress to make exporting such e-waste illegal.
"In a place like China, the recycling of copper wire is to douse it with kerosene and burn the vinyl off. You create a tremendously toxic fog when you do that," says Robert Houghton, president of the Columbus, Ohio, recycling company Redemtech.
EPA's Cross says it's important to understand that most markets for reused and recycled electronics are outside the USA. "Reuse markets are mainly in less-developed countries," he says. And though there are certainly "some unscrupulous recyclers and export brokers, these actually handle a small minority of materials."