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Switch to digital may clog landfills

By Jonathan J. Cooper Post-Dispatch

Media Center – Press Coverage

St Louis Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau
May 27, 2008
By Jonathan J. Cooper

Switch to digital may clog landfills

WASHINGTON — The switch from analog to digital television in February could bring problems beyond new costs to consumers: clogged landfills and pollution from old televisions.

Consumers expect to dispose of 43.5 million television sets by the end of this year and nearly 120 million through 2010, according to a survey by the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents manufacturers.

The deluge of garbage has prompted a handful of states to consider legislation to deal with the hazardous byproducts, and Congress is starting to get into the act by considering federal legislation to address the problem.

The cast-off of outmoded televisions already has begun with the arrival of high-definition and flat-screen TVs. Some of the old televisions go to friends, charities and online auction sites. But many will end up in landfills, where lead, mercury and other hazardous materials can leach into soil and groundwater. Last year, consumers trashed 14.1 million TV sets, according to the industry group.

And millions of televisions that aren’t dumped in the United States will be shipped abroad with other electronic waste, often to developing countries ill-equipped to handle them.

“This is an incredible waste of resources given that there are materials that can be recycled,” said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics Takeback Coalition, a nonprofit organization encouraging electronics manufacturers to take back and recycle their own products.

Illinois is on the verge of becoming the 12th state to force manufacturers to take back and recycle their old electronics, but Missouri has not given serious consideration to such a measure. Congress is beginning to look at a federal fix.

As the Feb. 17, 2009, end of analog broadcasting draws closer, older televisions will become less valuable to secondhand users and more likely to end up in the trash, experts said.

“For the first time, people will be getting rid of good, working televisions,” Kyle said.

A group of e-waste stakeholders working with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources hopes to steer people toward recycling centers with the website ecyclemo.org.

The site includes information about which products should be recycled and where they can be taken.

“We’re just trying to get some education out,” said Andrea Morrow, a spokeswoman for the DNR’s Solid Waste Management Program. “You don’t have to just toss it in a landfill. You can take it to an e-cycler who can take the parts and hopefully do something else with them.”

The 2009 digital transition affects viewers who get their television programming from over-the-air broadcast signals — about one in five homes in the St. Louis television market.

Viewers affected by the transition can subscribe to cable or satellite service or buy a digital television converter box. The federal government offers up to two $40 coupons per household to offset the cost.

More than 14 million coupons have been requested nationwide, including 397,000 in Missouri and 745,000 in Illinois, according to the National Telecommunications and Information Agency, which is coordinating the coupon program.

But with falling prices and improving picture technology, many consumers are opting to buy a new TV instead. Last year, consumers got rid of twice as many TVs as they bought.

The sheer numbers have led some states to try to keep old e-waste out of landfills. Eleven states and New York City now have regulations known as “producer-responsibility laws” that require manufacturers to take back and recycle unwanted electronic equipment.

Lawmakers in Springfield appear likely to add Illinois to the list. A producer-responsibility bill passed the state Senate without opposition last month and is being considered in the House.

California took a different approach, charging consumers who buy electronic devices an “advance recycling fee” to eventually pay for disposal.

“We could try legislation, but it wouldn’t pass,” said Laura Yates, a solid waste specialist for St. Louis County who has promoted e-waste recycling for years. “That’s why we need to have a couple of years to gather the data, look at its benefits, and then we can go to the Legislature with that ammunition.”

On Capitol Hill, staffers for a bipartisan group of eight lawmakers are working with manufacturers, retailers, recyclers and environmental groups to write a bill that they plan to introduce later this year.

The legislation likely will follow the producer-responsibility model, requiring manufacturers to submit plans to the Environmental Protection Agency for the collection and safe disposal of their products.

The challenge with recycling programs is finding an economical way to collect unwanted electronics, especially heavy and bulky items such as televisions.

Sony created a take-back program allowing customers to drop off unwanted Sony products at certain recycling centers across the country. There are only two such centers in Missouri — one each in St. Louis and Kansas City — making it difficult for customers in rural areas to get rid of their electronic components.

For many people, it’s simply cheaper and easier to dump their televisions in the trash.

To lessen that impact, the Consumer Electronics Association, a Washington-based lobby group for manufacturers, set up a website where consumers can search for electronics recycling centers by ZIP code. The site is myGreenElectronics.org.

Manufacturers say producer-responsibility laws put an undue burden on them and that they want consumers, retailers and local governments to share in the costs of collection. They also are pushing for a federal law that would standardize the regulations nationwide.

“Right now there are all these state bills and a local bill that are placing burdens on what are global companies,” said Parker Brugge, vice president of environmental affairs and corporate sustainability for the Consumer Electronics Association. “To have to comply with different state bills just doesn’t make good business sense.”

Another challenge is ensuring recyclers safely dispose of e-waste instead of shipping it to developing nations in Africa and Asia where it often is dumped in fields or exposed to “backyard primitive recycling processing,” Kyle said.

In some areas, people will melt circuit boards to extract precious metals, polluting the land and releasing toxic gases.

“They’re not even aware of or concerned about the lead in it,” she said. “They’re after other metals. People are literally poisoning themselves.”

Responsible recyclers break down an unwanted television into its component parts, said Dave Beale, vice president of EPC Inc., an electronics recycler in St. Charles. Some of the plastics, circuit boards, metals and wires can be sold and reused in new electronics. The cathode ray tube is sent to Doe Run and processed to remove lead.

Beale’s company collects consumer e-waste for $5 per piece, a price that barely covers the cost, he said.

“We try to keep it to a minimum,” Beale said. “We really don’t make any money off of it. It’s a favor to the public.”

jcooper@post-dispatch.com | 202-298-6880

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