For decades, American families spent evenings gathered around the flickering lights of cathode ray tube (CRT) television sets and connected their desktop computer towers to boxy, tube-powered monitors. But as technology has changed, these heavy, bulky devices fell swiftly out of favor in the last fifteen years, largely replaced by relatively lightweight, sleek-looking flat screens.
However, according to a 2014 survey by the Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse (ERCC), almost half (46%) of U.S. households still have at least one CRT television or computer monitor – and who knows how many of those are actively in use, or even usable.
As Americans continue to dispose of the roughly 5 billion pounds of CRT TVs and monitors currently in their homes, it’s an environmental and public health issue that must be addressed. The best, and only truly safe way to dispose of your old tube televisions and monitors is through proper recycling. But, unlike the scrap metal and electronics most of us are more familiar with recycling, you’ll probably have to pay someone to take your CRT devices.
“One of the most common questions we get from customers is ‘Why am I being charged for this?’” says Marisa Head, spokesperson for Cohen Recycling. It can be confusing for customers, she says, because people expect to get paid for most scrap items, and they don’t assume TVs would be any different.
But it’s important for people to know: The costs aren’t new, and they’re definitely not arbitrary. In fact, if a recycling company is willing to take your TV at no charge, that could be a red flag. Here’s why you have to pay to recycle your CRT TV or computer monitor, and why it’s worth the money.
The devices don’t yield valuable material, and the recycling process is costly.
The monetary value in electronics recycling comes from breaking down consumer goods into component parts that can then be sold back into the manufacturing supply chain as raw material. Products like the old CRT TVs and computer monitors were typically shelled in wood or plastic, materials with little recovery value.
Still, many people understandably assume that because recycling companies can often pay to take computer towers and other electronic devices, they should pay — instead of charge — for tube style televisions and monitors. After all, these are still electronics, right?
Don’t they have precious metals in their circuit boards and internal wiring?
The answer is yes, but not in quantities that make it worthwhile.
“There’s a small circuit board with just trace amounts of gold, but you still have to be able to recover that gold, so you’re talking pennies, not dollars,” says Bob McCarthy, vice president of business development for Cohen Recycling’s electronics-focused subsidiary, Cobalt. “Then there’s copper wire, but again, we’re talking pennies, not dollars.”
But what really sends recycling the products into the net-negative is the cost associated with recycling their components responsibly. “Those old CRTs have lead in them,” says McCarthy. “It’s a hazardous material that needs to be handled properly, or else we end up with contaminants in the air and in the water.” These contaminants pose not just a threat to the environment, but to the community– and risks to the workers who must handle them.
The first step in recycling — taking the device apart — must be done by hand.
While most electronics are placed in a shredder, which separates metals, plastics and other materials, human labor is required to dissemble CRT TVs and monitors.
Once the device is taken apart, the lead must be separated from the glass in the tube, a task that has proved difficult to get right. In recent years, four large companies that were handling the materials improperly have gone out of business, affecting the health of local communities by leaving large stockpiles of unprocessed material behind. Cohen partners with facilities that they’ve heavily vetted to do this work, but it’s nevertheless expensive – from labor, to shipping, to paying the company who will refine the material into something re-useable.
While Cohen is able to subsidize the costs of recycling some low-value products, such as TV remotes and old stereo systems, it just doesn’t balance with the CRT devices. “The products and commodities you get out of this once you dismantle aren’t worth what it costs to properly dispose of the finished product,” says Cobalt CEO Joey Fojtik.
Manufacturer subsidies are going away. What now?
If you or someone you know recycled a CRT television or computer monitor several years ago, there might not have been a charge. Companies such as Best Buy would accept these devices from consumers at no charge and have them recycled. But recycling TVs was never truly “free.” Most often, the costs were subsidized by the original equipment manufacturers. In Ohio, where most of the voluntary subsidy programs are going away and there isn’t legislation to mandate it, the cost is shifting back to the consumer.
But, your local recycling facilities — as well as your environmental and public health agencies — still want you to recycle those difficult devices. To encourage people to bring in their difficult to recycle electronics, Cohen partners with local organizations to host collection events every year. The largest of these is the annual PNC/Reds E-Waste Recycling Drive, which takes place each spring.
Just bring your electronics — including those CRT TVs and monitors — and a suggested donation of $10 or more to one of three drop-off points.
(Typically, the charge for these devices is around $0.40-0.50 per pound, so the $10 donation can still amount to a significant discount.) In return, Cohen will take your device off your hands, make sure it’s properly and safely recycled, and send you away with two free tickets to a Cincinnati Reds game.
“We want people to bring CRT TVs and monitors in to recycle,” says Fojtik. “There are unfortunately a lot of people who are dumping them because it’s the cheapest solution. We feel confident that we’re doing it the right way, and it gives us peace of mind knowing things will be processed in a positive manner.”