The Dirty Problem of CRT Glass

By Dan Ingouf

While attending the 2015 IAITAM ACE in San Diego, CA, I found myself in the midst of enjoyable and informative conversations with members and vendors.  In one conversation about disposal, the topic of types of IT equipment and disposal methods came up and my curiosity was piqued by the comment “we don’t see many CRT (cathode ray tube) monitors anymore.”

The surge in flat screen technology has replaced most of the CRT monitors and TV screens that we use at work and at home.  The questions remaining are what has happened to those CRT monitors and TVs, and how many more are still out there?  Have they been recycled, or have they found a permanent new home in a landfill?

 

CRT Recycling Pitfalls

The disappearance of old CRTs from the workplace, with no visible path for reuse and no financial incentive for continuing to recycle the materials from them, draws a picture of stockpiles of CRTs sitting in warehouses or dumped.  Although there are other harmful materials in them, the main concern is danger from the lead in the CRT glass.  Extracting the lead was never easy and the reduced number of devices to recycle created poor financial return so that recyclers stopped processing the glass.  The consequences of that change are that even with a reduced number of CRTs, a significant number of devices have been either orphaned in a warehouse of dumped inappropriately.  Proof keeps surfacing in all-too-frequent news reports describing tons of CRTs found at various locations; and many times, improperly stored or abandoned.

One horrific incident happened in Fresno, CA a few years ago.  It started when two inspectors from California’s hazardous waste agency were visiting an electronics recycling company near Fresno for a routine paperwork audit.  While onsite, the agents discovered a warehouse filled with thousands of computer monitors and old televisions.

The extent of the mess was immense and overwhelming.  Conditions were deplorable, with broken CRT glass covering the floor and the air cloudy with what was thought to be lead-saturated dust.  The air was heavy with it and the dust also covered everything within the warehouse.  CRTs were stacked so deep and so high that the agents had to keep track of each other by use of their cell phones.

It wasn’t long before the agents, concerned with their well-being, left the warehouse and its toxic contents.  Unfortunately, it wasn’t too long after the agents left the CRT stockpile that the owner of the recycling company disappeared leaving the tons of toxic waste behind for others to deal with.

An article in E-Scrap news about an investigation describes more of the same CRT stockpiling problems, making it clear that there is still a significant disposal problem with CRTs.

“…[R]ecycling processors in several states have abandoned operations after charging CRT suppliers and filling up a number of warehouses with more than 10,000 tons of CRTs and CRT glass.  State officials are now struggling with how to manage these problems.

Possibly the most serious of the abandonments is the closure of Luminous Recycling in Denver.   Two environmental experts who have toured the site say that the situation inside the warehouse is very serious due to extremely dusty conditions.  An East Coast handler of collected CRTs toured the plant after it had closed, reporting that the plant ‘was an environmental disaster.’ A key player in the CRT glass recycling market who also toured the site estimates that the warehouse holds about 8,000 tons of CRT glass.  E-Scrap’s efforts to contact officials at Luminous Recycling resulted in no responses.

Also of concern to environmental officials is the abandonment of CRT facilities in Yuma, Arizona operated by Dow Management.  An industry member who has toured two of the warehouses estimates they contain more than 3,000 tons of CRTs and CRT glass.  Notably, CRT suppliers from California and Washington, who work under state electronics recycling programs, sent CRTs to Dow Management.  For example, nearly 4,400 tons of CRTs and CRT glass were sent to the Yuma warehouses by 10 California-approved processors during an 18-month period ending this summer (2013).  KYO Computer, Inc. was the largest shipper, sending 1,444 tons to Dow Management during this period.  Also shipping materials was the e-Waste Center, which sent CRTs and CRT glass to the sites from both its California and Washington plants.”

There is no lack of evidence that electronics recyclers across the US have collected payments for recycling CRT TVs and monitors but instead of actually sending the toxic leaded CRT glass to proper glass processors, they simply stored this glass on their property or other locations.  A recent incident found CRTs buried on a recycler’s property.

The Florida Department of Environmental Protection issued a written statement that captures the reasons why the treatment of CRT monitors and televisions has escalated to becoming a serious problem:

“…Prior to about 2009, CRT glass recovered from monitors and televisions was widely used for new CRT manufacturing (“glass-to-glass”) and lead smelting as a fluxing agent in the smelting process.  By 2014, the market for recycled CRT glass has become seriously limited.  Very few new CRTs are being manufactured since flat panel displays have almost completely replaced CRT displays.  The demand for CRT glass by lead smelters has also fallen sharply.  Recycling markets for CRT glass are limited, costly and far away making CRT glass recycling a challenge to e-scrap recyclers.  As a result, some e-scrap recyclers have been left with large quantities of stored CRT glass for which they are hard-pressed to find cost effective, large quantity markets.”

 

The International Angle

The reason this issue generates grave concern is that it is a world-wide problem, generating concerns about widespread dumping, perhaps even from one country to another.  When CRTs were still in use, numerous countries had recycling facilities and vendors would ship to other nations to have the glass processed.  With the last recycler and reuse company in India closing their doors to CRTs in 2015, the avenues for direct reuse of the glass are gone:

“…Videocon, the world’s only remaining glass to glass recycling outlet for CRTs announced it was idling its panel and funnel furnaces in Bharuch, India for “heavy maintenance” and stopped taking CRT glass from its U S partner, Cali Resources.

Videocon, which has relied on its glass-to-glass operation to manufacture new CRT TVs for the Indian marketplace and elsewhere, is among the largest downstream outlets for US CRT glass.  Last year, the company expected to consume 108,000 tons of CRT glass from the US.  With both the panel and funnel glass furnaces down since at least the middle of the summer and no clear timetable as to when or if activity will start up again, the implications for the many American companies and state electronics recycling programs that rely on Videocon could be severe.”

With both the panel and funnel glass furnaces down since at least the middle of the summer and no clear timetable as to when or if activity will start up again, the implications for the many American companies and state electronics recycling programs that rely on Videocon could be severe.”

At this time, there is little hope for the plant to reopen.

 

The Consumer Angle

Another consideration in the CRT equation is that home consumers are still holding onto CRT monitors.  A Consumer Technology Association (CTA) blog cites a study conducted by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), and analyzed by the National Center for Electronics Recycling (NCER).  The study revealed that 46% of homes reported having at least one CRT device either in use or in storage.  That subset of devices equates to an estimated 7 billion pounds of CRT TVs and monitors combined, still in US households.

In an April 2014 article published by the NCER, further information is shared about the grave issues concerning household CRT recycling in the U S, and their estimated disposition:

“Approximately 44% of households reported disposing a CRT TV within the past five years, with 45% indicating they donated or gave it away, 41% reported they recycled the (TV) set and 20% threw it in the trash.”

Of great concern is the fact that disposing of these devices in the trash is not necessarily illegal, depending on which state you reside in, and not all communities have e-waste recycling programs.

Currently, there are 25 states (plus the District of Colombia) that have passed some type of e-waste legislation.  As of May 2015, there are 20 states that have specific landfill bans, and all 20 specifically ban CRT disposal.

 

Lack of Solutions

Between the improperly handled CRTs disposed over the last few years and the estimated 7 billion pounds of CRT e-waste still left in US homes, we have a significant problem.  There is a potential for 1.4 billion pounds of lead-tainted materials to be bound for landfills even if we only consider the 20% who trashed their unwanted CRT devices.  The discarded devices that do end up in US landfills are a significant risk to the environment.  This issue adds to the general concern about e-waste dumping across national borders.

The efforts to solve the problem of what to do with unmarketable CRT glass have not been met with great success.  There are some small quantity uses such as combining CRT glass with cement to create tile and bricks that are tested, labeled and sold specifically for applications where lead shielding is required, such as x-ray and fluoroscopy rooms.  Another attempt at a solution promoted by one recycler was the use of a reagent on the leaded glass to stabilize the compound and then use it as an Alternative Daily Cover (ADR) for layers and top of a landfill.  Concerns about environmental safety were immediately expressed leading to R2 excluding this method from acceptable recycling in the standard and for certification.  As reported by Resource Recycling, the US Environmental Protections Agency (EPA) followed a few months later accepting it only as a disposal method.  The EPA went on to accept the use of the materials in the manufacturer of ceramic tiles as an acceptable recycling use of the materials.

The truth of the matter is that there have been insufficient avenues for recycling this leaded glass for some time due to the shrinking volume of end product devices.  This leads credence to the fact that there is a significant amount of CRTs that are being stockpiled or inappropriately disposed, due to the lack of reasonable choices.

 

Challenges, Trials and Successes, There Is New Hope

In response to the growing volume of unwanted CRT monitors, TVs and displays piling up around the country, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), along with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), has released the results of a crowd-sourced initiative meant to find solutions for the obsolete items.

In November 2011, the two organizations issued a call for submissions for potential end uses for CRT glass, along with the promise of cash prizes for the best ideas.  Since many state’s laws restrict how CRT glass can be disposed of and, when coupled with limited demand for it as a recycling feedstock, the volume of excess material being stockpiled continues to grow rapidly.

With motivation of prizes ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, more than 350 “solvers” submitted ideas to the contest on what to do with the lead-heavy glass.  Of all entered contestants, three winners were selected:

“Mario Rosato, an environmental engineer from Spain who has won four previous challenges (all related to environmental issues).  Rosato proposed a closed-loop process for separating the lead from the glass in a form with high market value for a variety of industries;

Nulife Glass Processing Ltd., a company based in Manchester, England, proposed a solution that utilizes an energy efficient electrically heated furnace, uniquely designed to produce minimal emissions;  and

Robert Kirby, a mechanical engineer from New Mexico, submitted an idea for combining CRT glass with cement to create tile and bricks that are tested, labeled and sold specifically for applications where lead shielding is required, such as X-ray and fluoroscopy rooms.”

The three winners are all forward thinkers with viable solutions to a critical global problem.  Mr. Kirby’s plan is very good, yet has inherent limitations.   The truth of the matter in this type of recycling solution is that the amount of shielding materials needed are comparatively minimal and do not support the amount of CRT glass that e-scrap recyclers need to exhaust.

Mr. Rosato and Nulife Glass both approached the CRT problem in a similar manner; glass and lead separation.  Their answers create an end result of two marketable products; clean CRT glass, and clean marketable lead.

With the Nulife Glass solution, the CRT separation methodology has been under development for some time.  Simon Greer is the mastermind behind the creation of a very specific separation process.  Since day one, Simon and his wife, Candice-Elena Greer, (Co-owner and COO, Nulife Glass) have worked together to create an enterprise that not only makes full use of the toxic CRT e-waste, they also create end-products that are both marketable and profitable.  Some of the glass is reportedly turned into works of art.  This is not surprising since Candice-Elena, communicating via email, states that she has a background in contemporary art glass and studio glass making.  In that email Candice-Elena shares:

“With our glass recycling business I have and do collaborate with artists using our glass to experiment with.  By this we are constantly searching for innovative products.  Mainly the products are for marketing but we continually strive to find a product that could be massed produced.  Working with the creative sector adds another exciting dimension to our business. You can view some of the projects and products on our website.  We currently work with our in- house glass artist Michelle Keeling who made Recycling Awards commissioned by CEA; again more info on our website (NulifeGlass.com).”

The organization, based in Manchester, England, (at time of writing also two new U S locations in Dunkirk, NY, and Bristol, VA) Nulife Glass Processing Ltd., has developed a process combining heat and chemistry to produce marketable lead and clean glass from CRT glass.  The proposed solution utilizes an extremely energy efficient electrically heated furnace, uniquely designed to produce minimal emissions.

An article in Waste Management World focuses on Simon Greer, as he explains:

“…the ‘Eureka’ moment came in 2001, when, using a combination of heat and chemistry, he (Greer) managed to squeeze a tiny amount of lead out of CRT glass using a furnace and then realized what the chemical formula was to do it.  He then set about refining the process through trial and error with the construction and testing of a number of small furnaces.

I predicted for the past five or six years that the day will come when there will be no recycling of glass back into TVs.  It was not a fantastic revelation.  It was blatantly obvious that that would be the case.  The price of panel TVs would fall and on that basis the CRT would end.  So we’ve carried on doing what we’re doing with the confidence of knowing that day would come.  And it has come crashing (down) all at the same time.  There are increasing numbers of TVs coming into the waste stream, and diminishing outlets, explains Greer.”

The end result as per Nulife Glass is a method of recycling any CRT glass using a process that has no negative impact to the environment, and is overall profitable when marketing the end components of sellable lead and clean glass.

“There is no waste material from the Nulife Glass process, 100% of the input into the furnace is converted to metallic lead and clean glass.  This is a significant improvement compared to using CRT glass as a silica source in a smelting furnace where at least 85% of the glass will end up as toxic slag which has to be disposed of at specially licensed landfill sites.”

A summary of the process business model shows that:

“…a CRT recycling plant will generate significant revenues over the projected 8 – 10 year life of the plant.  The furnace requires a feed of 10 tonnes of funnel glass per day which equates to 30 tonnes of whole CRTs per day or 2000 large televisions.  Over a 10 year lifespan one furnace will process more than 30,000 tonnes of CRT funnel glass which is 90,000 tonnes of whole CRTs.

The recycling process is funded by a combination of tipping fees and sales of recovered lead and glass.  If the value of lead goes up then the gate fees can be adjusted to reflect this and likewise, if the value of lead falls then the gate fee would be increased in order to maintain a profitable operation.

As this business model comes to fruition, Nulife Glass is currently expanding its services to locations in the US.  At time of writing, there is a new facility in Dunkirk, New York nearing completion.  There is also a new facility being constructed in Bristol, Virginia, scheduled to open after the New York location.”

Obviously, there is a heavy component of innovation necessary for e-waste in general and for the leftover CRT and TV monitors well.  We wish Nulife Glass success.

Keep in mind that in addition to removing harmful materials from inappropriate storage or disposal, the reclamation of the lead and glass eliminates the need to pull the equivalent materials from the earth.  The best solutions are a win-win for all entities involved including our global environment.

 

In Conclusion

CRT waste glass reprocessing has been a sore spot in e-waste recycling for many years, with survey results indicating we still have a problem that grows as CRTs continue to enter the waste stream.

Like many technologies, the CRT was innovative in its time, but with advances in display technology, that time has passed leaving at least 1.9 billion CRTs still in use globally with no clear path for proper recycling.   Heavy metals and other toxins within CRTs such as lead, strontium and phosphor, are considered to be extremely hazardous especially to those most susceptible, the children of the world.   The most likely method of these toxins entering into the human system is by leaching from landfills into the soil and ground water.  It is essential that we not only find and advocate methods for recycling the materials properly, but also make it a business opportunity so that the “right thing” is the best choice.

Research into new and more effective methods of recycling are needed to handle the volume of e-waste that is created on a daily basis.  Older technology requires special attention because as the volume of the devices going into the recycling industry falls, the financial viability of the recycling effort drops faster that than the number of devices left.  We need processes that work on specific problems like the separation of glass and lead into two sellable components and that create a profitable recycling industry that makes a positive impact on toxic global problems.

About Dan Ingouf

Dan Ingouf is the Content Development Specialist for IAITAM.