Next February 17, the United States will implement a mandatory transition to digital television. That will spell the death knell for many TVs. Consumers will jettison some because they lack not only the appropriate tuners, but also the inputs for cable or other set-top boxes. Many more sets will be put to pasture simply because they can’t deliver the crisp image for which high-definition programming gets its name.

No one knows how many TVs the digital transition will retire from service, but there are sure to be many. And the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, headquartered in San Francisco, has been concerned that many sets will simply be landfilled or shipped overseas to some developing nation where young children may be asked to remove valuable but potentially toxic metals for pennies an hour.

The good news: Zenith and Goldstar TVs may experience a greener demise. These brands were purchased by LG, the world’s second largest manufacturer of TVs. And yesterday, LG announced it is launching a free, U.S. recycling program for any brands of TV no matter their age or condition that it now owns. LG joins Sony as the only major manufacturers to do this.

Unfortunately, Sony announced its program a year ago, long after I had already given up hope of finding a recycler and had reluctantly landfilled my old Betamax video players. But people with other Sony electronics, including laptops, now can turn in their discards for guaranteed recycling, not burial.

Nor are TVs the only of its products that LG will take back. Consumers can drop off anything from cell phones to refrigerators. There will be a limit, however, of no more than five items per household per drop-off.

“There’s been a lot of recycling programs where you can mail back goods,” notes Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the TakeBack Coalition. “But nobody’s going to mail back a television. Most of them are way too big.” Now, there’s a few major brands for which you can find recycling centers that will accept drop-offs at no cost, she says.

“It’s definitely a modest beginning,” Kyle admits, “because they [LG] don’t even have a drop-off site in every state, although they say they will by September. And the same with Sony it’s modest as far as how many places are available for take-backs. But they’ve clearly stated an intent to grow the number and make it easy for people to find nearby locations.”

Moreover, both Sony and LG “tell us that they will be managing the take-backs in a responsible way,” Kyle says “not exporting [discards] to developing countries.”

“Our organization has focused on TVs,” Kyle explains, because smaller goods can be mailed in or sometimes returned to retailers. But the 30- to 60-inch TVs entering the market at semi-affordable prices and sporting strikingly, high-definition fidelity “are driving people to get rid of their older units, even if they work,” she notes. Because they’re so heavy and have a lot of lead in them, the conventional TVs now being discarded “have been the hardest thing to find recyclers for,” Kyle says.

“Sadly,” she adds, “even though there are a number of toxic materials in [conventional TVs and computer monitors], in a lot of states it’s not illegal to toss them in the trash.” And people view old TVs, computer printers, and other electronics as eminently disposable, she notes, because consumers aren’t being asked to pay the products’ cradle-to-grave costs especially environmental damage and health costs associated with their wastes.

Electronics contain lots of toxic plastics and metals. They also contain lots of resources that retain value, including gold, silver, and copper. In some nations, especially China, communities have agreed to salvage the prized resources, unaware of the toxic pollutants such as lead and flame retardants that this dismantling spews into their air and water (see E-Waste Hazards). “It’s time manufacturers start to internalize the cost of recycling of their products and, hopefully, manage that recycling responsibly.”

We’ll see.

I’m still waiting for my community to put out bins to collect batteries and compact fluorescent lights. Then again, maybe bins aren’t the way to go for light bulbs that contain toxic mercury. And what are we supposed to do with expired drugs? Surely not treat them as trash.

There have been plenty or proposals on how to manage each of these toxic staples in the consumer-waste stream but to date, little or no follow-through.

Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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