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The Panthers’ role in a cathode ray tube crisis

fr TVsIn the days leading up to the Super Bowl, avid Panthers’ fan David Francis came up with a novel approach to quantifying local interest in the big game this year, which hit a fever pitch given a home-state team in the lineup.

Simply track the number of old TVs coming through Haywood County’s trash and recycling center.

“A lot of people will go out and buy a new TV for the Super Bowl,” said Francis, Haywood’s solid waste director.

That means jettisoning their old ones, which soon turn up at the county recycling center in Clyde.

The Super Bowl TV-buying frenzy came quick on the heels of the Christmas season, which had already swamped the county’s Materials Recovery Center with old TVs people ditched to make way for their new Black Friday deals and holiday specials.

“We have three tractor-trailer loads sitting on the floor,” Francis said.

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Shrink-wrapped pallets stacked high with TVs were queued up inside the county’s giant recycling warehouse last week, waiting to be shipped off to a disposal center that dis-assembles the TVs and mines then for useable parts before destroying them.

But getting rid of the ever-mounting pile will come at a cost to county taxpayers. State law bans TVs and other electronics from landfills. Computers, DVD players, laptops, radios, you name it — they all must be collected, sorted and sent off to a disposal center rather than dumped in the landfill.

Until this year, the cost of disposing of used electronics was born by the electronics industry itself.

“If you wanted to sell TVs in North Carolina, you had to pay into the recycling program,” said Chris Stahl, head of Macon County’s solid waste.

Recycled electronic parts don’t fetch enough on the commodity market to make it a financially viable enterprise. So Panasonic, Sharp, Dell, Samsung, and the rest of the industry players subsidized electronics recycling centers in the state.

But the system fell apart last year. Commodity prices for used electronic parts plummeted so low even the subsidies from the electronics manufacturers weren’t enough to cover the disposal costs, and counties have been forced to cough up the difference.

“The commodities are so bad and so low they had to make the money up somewhere to recover the loss of the revenue they aren’t getting on the back end,” said Stahl, who’s currently the president of the N.C. chapter of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

Adding insult to injury, a bill proposed by a state Republican legislator last year would have quit the subsidies from the electronics industry altogether and instead force counties to foot the entire bill. 

“While everything was up in the air, the processing centers were like, ‘We can keep doing this, but it will now be X cents a pound,’” Stahl said. “And by the way, if the manufacturing money starts rolling back in, it is still going to be X cents a pound.”

Haywood County commissioners last week had to allocate an emergency appropriation of $40,000 to pay for the pallets of TVs and electronics to be taken of its hands by electronics recycling centers. The annual cost will likely run the county $60,000.

Stahl said that’s roughly what Macon will be looking at as well.


The cathode ray conundrum

The biggest culprit behind mounting electronic recycling costs: cathode ray tube TVs and computer monitors with heavy slabs of hazardous leaded glass. The only thing you can really do with the toxic glass is make more cathode ray TVs, but no one’s making those anymore.

The bulky cathrode ray TVs and monitors once ubiquitous in American households are now passe with the advent of slim, flat panel models. The glut of cathode ray TVs flooding the recycling market, combined with dried up demand for the repurposed parts, is causing a nationwide conundrum.

Stahl knew of only one last cathode ray TV factory in the world, located in India, that was still taking the leaded glass up until last year.

“Historically, most of that material when it is recycled is shipped out of the country,” Stahl said.

Now, cathode ray TVs have become so costly to deal with, some electronics recycling centers have shut down, leaving huge stockpiles of abandoned leaded glass behind. One in North Carolina went bankrupt. 

About 57 million computers and televisions are sold in the United States annually, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. So theoretically, the cathode ray conundrum should end as households eventually replace their old TVs.

But Stahl said the problem could drag on indefinitely, as many people stick their old TVs in closets and basements, waiting years or decades to actually get them out of the house.

In fact, that’s what one city in Texas is actually telling its residents to do.

“They said just put them in your attic or downstairs for now, because we don’t have a way to deal with them,” Stahl said, recounting the Texas city’s solution.

Best Buy used to accept old TVs and computers from anyone off the street at no cost and ship them off to be recycled, but no more. Best Buy announced this month it will now charge $25 because the commodity price for the parts has dropped so low given the market saturation.

The National Center for Electronics Recycling estimated there are still 6 billion pounds of cathode ray TVs and monitors left in people’s homes. 

Stahl said new flat panel TVs and monitors have their own down-side, however.

The guts of cathode ray TVs at least have copper wire, which was worth a little something, along with metal scrap. The flat panel models are almost all plastic, with very little to turn into resellable parts.

“They don’t have very much worthwhile in them. Flat screens are not without their problems,” Stahl said.

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