Toxic TVs: Is the digital switchover damaging the environment?

Alarm bells are ringing ahead of the final digital switchover in October 2012. Pollution of the environment by toxic waste looks set to rise in the rush to replace analogue sets with their digital-ready counterparts

Discarded televisions contain hazardous materials, including mercury and lead, which must be carefully managed to prevent contamination of the ecosystem.

Large, cumbersome and digitally unprepared Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) televisions are widely seen as obsolete, leading to high numbers entering the waste stream in recent months. These CRT TVs incorporate large quantities of lead, with 2lbs (0.9kg) being present in a set of average size. To make matters worse, it is extremely difficult to separate the lead from the glass in CRT screens. In years gone by, the glass/lead screens were stripped from discarded televisions and reused - but a reduction in demand for CRT screens has made this practice too costly to sustain.

Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) TV owners may upgrade to models with built-in digital receivers to save on domestic power consumption. Waste LCD TVs often include mercury, which is highly toxic and has been linked to brain and kidney damage. Just 1/70th of a teaspoon can contaminate 20 acres of lake, rendering the resident fish unfit for consumption[i].

Disposal and the digital switch: An increase in waste or an increase in haste?

Determining what proportion of television set disposals result directly from the digital switchover (as opposed to 'normal' consumer behaviour) is difficult; however, some clear regional trends are emerging. In the six months following Devon's digital switchover, Devon County Council handled 80,000 unwanted TVs. This represents an increase of almost 100 per cent on the same period in the previous year[ii]. With approximately 750,000 people living in Devon[iii], around one television for every nine Devon residents was thrown away during this period alone.

Nevertheless, televisions have a limited life span and it is to some extent inevitable that they will eventually be replaced. Some evidence suggests that what is happening is a temporal shift rather than an increase in the total number of disposals. According to this view, many consumers are replacing their televisions sooner than they would in a non-switchover scenario. A governmental report published in 2007[iv] predicted that: "Although there will be a shift in the pattern of disposal of televisions as a direct consequence of digital switchover, total disposal during the period to 2020 is similar in both switchover and non-switchover scenarios."

Whilst in many ways this is an encouraging analysis, it also shows that the window for improving our recycling and disposal services is a very narrow one. Once waste televisions make their way to landfill sites, they are unlikely to be recovered and disposed of responsibly.

A groundbreaking processing plant designed by Nulife Glass Processing Ltd., capable of separating lead from glass in CRT screens on a commercial scale, is soon to be launched in the UK by recycling firm SWEEEP Kuusakoski. This will be the first plant of its kind in the world[v]. When the new plant becomes operational, it will be able to handle up to 60 tonnes of end-of-life television sets per day[vi], yielding reusable materials through an emission-free process[vii].

So what currently happens to all the old 'toxic boxes'?

It is estimated by the USA Government that 40 per cent of the heavy metals in landfills (including lead, cadmium and mercury) come from discarded electronic equipment[viii].

In the UK alone, we throw away a million tonnes of electrical and electronic waste every year[ix].

End-of-life electronics, or 'e-waste', is one of the fastest growing waste streams in the European Union (EU). EU e-waste is expected to grow by almost a third from the already considerable annual sum of 9.1 million tonnes in 2005 to an enormous 12.3 million tonnes by 2020[x].

The WEEE Directive was introduced into UK law in 2007 and is designed to ensure that electronic waste is disposed of correctly. Astonishingly, 67 per cent of e-waste collected in the EU remains unaccounted for: either 'dumped' in regular landfill, illegally exported or sent to substandard treatment facilities. A report published in September 2010 found that only 33 per cent of e-waste collected in the EU is treated in accordance with the WEEE Directive[xi].

What can we do?

By waiting to replace our CRT televisions until the Kuusakoski plant goes live in the next few months, we can help to ensure they will be handled responsibly. Speaking to, Justin Greenaway - contracts manager at SWEEEP Kuusakoski - assured members of the public that they will be able to access the new facility free of charge. To make use of the service, old CRT televisions must be taken to the local household waste disposal authority when the plant opens in the next 4-5 months.

In the meantime, a set-top box converter will enable most existing televisions to receive the digital signal. Users of LCD TV sets that do not have built-in digital receivers should consider a set-top box as a long-term alternative to replacement. Those who must replace their LCD TVs should donate any unwanted sets to friends, relatives or charitable organisations – this will prevent toxic mercury from entering the waste stream.

"The Government's own research shows that using products for their full working lives could reduce UK greenhouse emissions by 800 million tonnes by 2050." - Jilian Kirby, Friends of the Earth[xii].

According to a government estimate[xiii], the average UK household creates six tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year: 800 million tonnes of greenhouse emissions is such an enormous sum that it would take all the households in the UK six years to produce the same amount of CO2.

Perhaps the most responsible solution does not begin with government policy. We as consumers hold the power to make an enormous difference in the battle against wastage; keeping up with the Joneses will never lead to a sustainable society, but we can help to preserve our environment for future generations by using electrical goods until the end of their working lives.

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