Has a trusted friend become e-waste?


It was a clear day when I laid the mighty Quasar to rest. Funny how people get attached to things.

That TV was nothing but a big hunk of glass, plastic and a smattering of precious metals. Still, seeing the old tube sitting on the curb was sad. It was the one constant in a series of living rooms that went from faux-bamboo and plastic to wood and leather. I wore out two recliners, one couch and a Papasan chair watching that TV.

But progress is progress, and the government has decided I need to upgrade.

I couldn't get the Quasar out of my mind, so I asked some environmental folks what the fate might be of the millions of TVs that will likely be put out to pasture before the switch from analog to digital on Feb. 17, 2009.

"We believe the digital transition will cause a toxic tsunami for our landfills and salvage operations worldwide," says Robin Schneider, vice chairman of the Electronics TakeBack Coalition.

Turns out the Quasar is now part of the "e-waste" community -- all those computers, cell phones, telephones and TVs we throw away each year. Groups like Electronic Recyclers, a leading e-waster recycler, are predicting about 80 million analog TVs will be replaced in 2008 and 2009. Sure, some people might just buy one of those set-top digital converters. But Schneider is worried. "We believe that people are going to go for the digital (TVs) and never look back."

Those discarded TVs contain copper, cadmium, lead, mercury and brominated flame retardants, which can be extracted and sold, albeit at a cost. Of the 12.5% of e-waste the EPA says is recycled, between half and three-fourths of it is exported to the developing world. Workers, usually the very poor in Nigeria, China and India, use hammers, gas burners and their bare hands to dismantle the 400,000-800,000 tons of American e-waste each year.

Manufacturers are less concerned. They don't expect a noticeable increase in trashed TV sets leading up to the transition.

"There is this notion out there that the DTV will cause all those TVs to go black, and that's not the case," says Parker Brugge, Consumer Electronics Assn. environmental counsel. After all, people who get their TV from cable or satellite won't notice much difference. Viewers must act if they depend on an antenna for their main TV or for secondary sets, but the government is subsidizing up to two converter boxes per household.

And according to the CEA, nearly 60% of all TVs are donated to friends or charitable organizations. Another 16% are recycled, while 20% are landfilled and 6% are sold. All this could mitigate any TV waste surge.

Someone picked up the Quasar before the trash truck arrived. I like to think the old set continues to flicker on, at least until Feb. 17, 2009.

With a converter, the Quasar might even live forever.