Media Center – Press Coverage
Left in the Flat-Screen Dust
Old-Model TVs Are So Toxic, You Can’t Give ‘Em Away. Literally.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2009
This land is your land, this land is clunker land. From clunker cars to Jonathan Carroll’s kitchen table, where a 20-inch Philips TV sits unplugged awaiting someone — anyone — to fire it up again before next week’s season premiere of “Dancing With the Stars.”
The TV works fine, Carroll says in a Craigslist ad. Only $40. Just a few years old. Perfect for a dorm room. Yet nobody has responded to the offer. “Not even the scammers,” Carroll said. “They don’t bother.” Similar ads are piling up: “32″ Panasonic TV 2000. Perfect working condition. Like New.” And “19 inch tv – $19.”
Alas, these televisions don’t have much going for them. In technological terms, they use cathode-ray tubes — CRTs. In layman’s language, they are clunkers. Like Formica countertops displaced by granite, they no longer seem sleek. Like gas-guzzling autos surpassed by hybrids, they can no longer claim the cutting edge. They are fully functional dinosaurs in a high-def age. They just aren’t, like Carroll’s new TV, flat.
“It’s amazing that nobody wants a perfectly good TV,” Carroll said. “It even has a remote.”
America’s unquenchable craving, even in a recession, for the latest and greatest in electronics, and the nation’s switch to digital television broadcasting in June, have combined to send consumers racing for flat-screen TVs — and has made them anxious to rid their homes of their tube-based relics. Carroll and others worry that nobody will take their old TVs, not even for free, and local governments are scrambling to stop the rejects, laden with lead, from being dumped in landfills or poor Asian countries.
“Our society consumes a lot of electronics, whether it be computers, cellphones, TiVos, stereos or TVs, and these days, these things have a very limited life span,” said Peter Karasik, who, as manager of Montgomery County’s transfer station has a canary-in-the-coal-mine view of the country’s electronics fashions.
In no segment of the electronics industry is the new supplanting the old faster than for boob tubes. Last year, 91 percent of the 37 million TVs sold in the United States had flat screens, according to the market research firm DisplaySearch. The number of tube TVs sold has fallen spectacularly, from 15.6 million in 2006 to 3.1 million last year. Asking a Best Buy salesman where the tube TVs are is a fail-safe way to induce giggles. The chain doesn’t sell them anymore.
As new TVs enter the home, many people hide the old ones in basements, garages or closets. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 99 million TVs were stored this way two years ago. But many TVs are simply tossed. In 2007, 27 million units were discarded, and 77 percent of them were tossed out with the trash (most of the rest are recycled).
Responding to potential landfill contamination, 18 states, including Virginia and Maryland, require manufacturers to help pay for electronics recycling. Montgomery County’s recycling program took in 122 tons of TVs in July, more than double the load in July of last year.
“Ever since the human being appeared, we’ve been hard-wired to hunt for better and bigger,” said Martin Lindstrom, a marketing guru and author of “Buyology.” “And that makes us think, ‘I don’t want to end up being the last person on planet Earth left with a CRT.’ ”
Carroll executed a succession plan in his District apartment: New flat screen is installed in living room, living room tube moves to the bedroom, the little Philips in the bedroom goes to Craigslist. Across the country, clunker pathways vary according to size of home and shape of family. Some TVs shift from bedrooms to basements to garages. Others migrate to college dorms. “It’s the TV shuffle,” Carroll said.