Low demand, high costs, excess supply, and state electronics takeback laws that don’t cover the full costs of recycling have recyclers in a bind—and have put some out of business.
By Megan Quinn
Recyclers have long known the challenges associated with moving electronics that contain cathode-ray tubes through the recycling stream. CRTs, found primarily in old televisions and computer monitors stashed in people’s homes, are complicated to recycle because each one contains several pounds of leaded glass, which requires special handling procedures for safety and to comply with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Even when the glass is processed properly, its low value and other market limitations make it hard to recycle into new products.
Considering the many CRT recycling problems, which have made news since the mid-2000s, it is no surprise that some recyclers have stopped accepting the problematic material. Yet others, especially those who have contracts with original equipment manufacturers under extended producer responsibility laws, still continue to handle CRTs despite the challenges. The market difficulties are not going away, even as fewer and fewer CRTs enter the recycling stream. Recyclers still wonder what it will take for CRT recycling to work, both financially and environmentally. Who will pay for it? When will peak collection end? And, in states with OEM takeback laws, how do these laws help or hurt recyclers’ ability to meet both goals?
The Situation So Far
If CRT market dynamics have changed at all in the past few years, they’ve gotten worse. CRTs are difficult to recycle because of the leaded glass they contain, and CRT glass has essentially no commodity value. A typical CRT has between 4 and 8 pounds of lead, almost all of which is in the funnel. The leaded glass needs to be processed, stored, and transported without causing environmental contamination. Recyclers typically must pay a consumer to take the panel and funnel glass. At the same time, the value of the remaining commodities, such as copper wiring, plastic, and other metals, has gone down in the past few years. That makes it much harder for recyclers to absorb the costs associated with CRT recycling.
Business competition also is making CRT processing a losing proposition. Kelley Keogh, co-founder and managing partner for recycling auditor Greeneye Partners (Santa Rosa, Calif.), says many recyclers accept CRTs to win competitive bids to receive high volumes of other used electronics. “In order to even be considered [for these contracts], they have to be willing to accept everything under the e-scrap umbrella,” she says. “When a recycler says, ‘I don’t handle CRTs,’ the customer may decide to go with another company.” Eric Harris, ISRI’s assistant vice president of government relations and associate counsel, adds that the bidding process for such contracts can create downward pressure on the market, too. “Some manufacturers might try to push the price down, and on the recycler side, they might drop their bid so low in order to get the volume they want that they shoot themselves in the foot,” he says.
A third negative market factor is the lack of demand for leaded CRT glass. For years, CRT glass was just recycled back into new CRTs. As consumers have moved to flat-screen LED and plasma-screen electronics, this market has all but disappeared. Videocon (Mumbai), the last company in the world that recycles CRT glass from North America into new CRTs, shut down its furnaces and stopped processing CRTs for five months last year. In March, Videocon announced it would start accepting CRT glass from U.S.-based suppliers again, but Walter Alcorn, vice president of environmental affairs and industry sustainability for the Consumer Technology Association (Arlington, Va.), thinks that opportunity will be short-lived. “2016 may be the last year for glass-to-glass recycling for any CRTs collected for recycling in the United States,” he says.
Experts say there are other markets for the material, such as lead smelters, tile manufacturers, and glass companies, but not all of these solutions will work for each recycler. Keogh says some states, certification standards, or contracts require recyclers to send CRT glass only to certain outlets, which limits where a recycler can send the material. And, since recyclers typically pay consumers to take the leaded glass off their hands, some markets can be cost-prohibitive. “There is market capacity, but the key is finding markets they can afford,” Keogh says.
How Many CRTs Are Left?
While electronics such as smartphones, tablets, and laptops seem to have shorter and shorter lives, “consumers tend to hold on to TVs for more than a decade before they hit the recycling stream,” Alcorn says. CRT TVs, which were the most common type of TV sold until about 2004, are still slowly finding their way into recyclers’ hands, and recyclers and OEMs hope to keep chipping away at the supply until it’s gone, he says. In 2015, CTA, which was then called the Consumer Electronics Association, did a survey to determine how many CRT devices might still be in use or in storage somewhere in U.S. households. The study found about 34 percent of households in the United States still have at least one either in use or in storage, down from 41 percent in 2014. The supply seems to be shrinking, but it is still substantial. The study estimates about 3 million tons of household CRT devices are still out there—2.5 million tons of TVs and 500,000 tons of monitors. That’s down from 3.5 million tons estimated in 2014.
According to CTA, state-mandated EPR programs are responsible for collecting about 70 to 75 percent of CRTs that get recycled. The study estimates that volume at about 350,000 to 400,000 tons collected each year, though CTA’s goal is to raise that collection rate to 500,000 tons annually. Alcorn says these numbers will continue to go down as the years pass, and the association plans to update this study again by the end of 2016. “We’re going to see a significant decline in CRTs coming into the [recycling] system in five to 10 years, which will help relieve and stabilize the market in terms of supply and demand,” he says.
Resa Dimino, senior adviser for policy and programs at the Product Stewardship Institute (Boston), says it’s not clear when the supply of CRTs for recycling will come to an end, in part because different parts of the country are experiencing more of a slowdown than others. Washington, which was one of the first states to implement an EPR program 10 years ago, is starting to see bigger declines in volume, while states that have more recently adopted EPR programs still seem to have higher volumes, she says. “We thought [CRT collection] would be a two- to three-year cycle. It now looks like it is more of a 10-year cycle,” she says.
One recycler still in the CRT collection business is Regency Technologies (Twinsburg, Ohio). It collects end-of-life CRTs and other electronics from its suppliers, then processes and prepares the material for recycling. Used electronics that require further downstream processing go to “qualified and approved companies that specialize in handling specific types of material such as CRT glass,” says Jim Levine, Regency’s president.
Though glass-to-glass recycling is at its end, experts say several other industries can take the material. One is the tile manufacturing industry, which uses the lead as flux in tile furnaces. Bill Long, chair of ISRI’s Electronics Division and executive vice president of All-Green Recycling (Tustin, Calif.), says some U.S. recyclers have been sending their leaded glass to Camacho Recycling (Albacete, Spain) for this application, or they send it to Dlubak Glass (Upper Sandusky, Ohio), where cullet goes into construction projects such as paving and cement. Others send the leaded glass to lead smelters such as The Doe Run Co. (St. Louis) or Glencore’s General Smelting (Lachine, Quebec), which turns it into lead for new products.
Some consumers of leaded glass are even making plans to expand. Nulife Glass (Manchester, England) opened a secondary lead smelting furnace in Dunkirk, N.Y., in 2014. The company, which turns the leaded glass from CRTs in TVs and computer monitors into separate streams of lead and glass, says it has capacity for more than 1,000 tons of CRT glass, according to its website. The company held a ribbon cutting and began hiring for its second U.S. location, in Bristol, Va., in April. President Simon Greer told the Bristol Herald Courier that the new location likely would start construction and some operations within a year. Nulife plans to hire about 46 people for the Bristol facility.
Though recyclers such as Long feel optimistic that at least some CRT glass will find its way to these emerging markets, he is cautious about predicting how big an impact these businesses will have on the overall CRT recycling sector. “The opportunities are there, but time will tell,” he says.
As Keogh notes, with today’s low scrap commodity prices, finding sufficient consumers of CRT glass at a reasonable price can make or break an electronics recycler. Failed CRT recycling operations have made headlines in recent years, either because the companies could not sustain financial backing or they could not find markets for the material. Some companies, weighed down with CRTs they could not recycle or move downstream, ended up stockpiling or dumping them. One of the most recent examples is Closed Loop Refining and Recovery (Phoenix). When it opened in 2010, it promised to build furnaces in Ohio and Arizona to recycle CRT glass into separate streams of glass and lead, as much as 72,000 tons a year, and it received upfront financial backing to get the project going, Resource Recycling reported. Yet Closed Loop faced building delays and unexpected costs to deploy its technology. It found itself unable to meet processing demands and ended up with huge stockpiles of CRTs—much higher numbers than the EPA allows without a permit—that caused the company to cease operating, Resource Recycling reported. Both locations fell behind in rent payments, leading the property owners to sue them and close the facilities at the same time the firm was being investigated for EPA violations. Closed Loop is now listed online as closed, its website has been taken down, and its phone number has been disconnected. The Arizona Department of Environmental Quality estimates the company had stockpiled up to 25,000 tons of leaded CRT glass and 2,250 tons of whole CRTs at its Phoenix site.
Other CRT recyclers have made headlines for even more dramatic problems. In 2015, a fire broke out at CRT Recycling (Brockton, Mass.) and destroyed a warehouse that held thousands of CRT TVs and computer monitors. Officials say the fire was arson, local newspaper The Enterprise reported. Other high-profile, suspicious CRT fires happened a year earlier at three different Stone Castle Recycling locations in Utah. Stone Castle also was cited for storing broken CRT glass outdoors in open Gaylord boxes, which, when rained on, potentially allowed the lead to leach into the ground. The EPA is now leading the cleanup of one of the facilities.
Recyclers need to hold themselves to a higher standard, regardless of how tough the market is, says one Texas-based recycler, who processes circuitboards and other electronics but not CRTs. “We don’t even touch them. Honestly, they make our [electronics recycling sector] look bad,” he says. “You can’t blame people for [thinking bad thoughts] because you hear about these companies collecting a bunch of CRTs, then burying them or just lighting them on fire.”
Yet these dramatic and illegal practices underscore the hard times CRT recyclers face, says Dimino of PSI. Though she does not condone the illegal dumping and burning, she says those are symptoms of a larger problem: Manufacturers are not paying recyclers what it really costs to recycle CRTs responsibly. Keogh says economics is the reason recyclers won’t jump into the CRT recycling business today if they are not handling the material already. In fact, she thinks more and more recyclers will get out of the business in the coming years if they can. “Lately I hear from people, some of the smaller recyclers, who tell me they no longer accept CRTs. The numbers didn’t work out,” she says. “But if they have an EPR [contract], they have to stay in.”
A Distorted Market
The extended producer responsibility laws that promote electronics recycling also have complicated the process when it comes to CRTs. In the United States, 25 states have laws concerning used electronics collection and recycling. All but one require OEMs to pay for some or all of the recycling of electronics, including CRT monitors and TVs. Many of those states also ban the landfilling of CRTs from both residential and commercial sources, Dimino says. “Some state [EPR] laws are structured in such a way that they inadvertently created pressure among recyclers to keep costs down, driving people into bad behaviors,” she says. OEMs try to partner with recyclers who can get the job done at the lowest possible cost, Alcorn explains. That puts a burden on recyclers who win the contracts, who must figure out how to get the CRTs to their final recovery facility safely but within budget. Low commodity prices mean collectors are getting less profit for their other materials, he says, leaving less available for CRT costs.
Another problem, Long says, has to do with the way EPR laws charge OEMs for recycling programs. Companies that manufacture or sell electronics today must pay to cover the cost of recycling end-of-life electronics based on the weight of electronics they sell in that state. Older companies such as RCA and Zenith, which made CRT devices for decades, make fewer electronics today. And they and newer companies such as Dell, HP, and Lenovo are manufacturing smaller, lighter electronics, meaning EPR laws provide funding to recycle smaller and smaller proportions of the heavy CRTs. “There’s nobody now to pay for this equipment, which has been in service for 20 years. That complicates things,” he says. If more CRTs are collected after the OEM reaches the quota, “recyclers get stuck between a rock and a hard place and are asked to make up the difference,” Dimino says. The entire effectiveness of the program, Long adds, “relies on you not running out of money halfway through.”
One approach to closing the funding gap is to make the CRT owner bear some of the recycling costs, but doing so has had a dramatic impact on collection volumes. Several electronics retailers had takeback programs that accepted CRTs for free, in part because the companies only would get credit under EPR laws for electronics it collects for free. But once they introduced a recycling fee for CRTs, volumes decreased, Levine says. Though he believes customers should take at least some responsibility for recycling costs, he realizes it creates a barrier. “If you make [CRT collection] free and convenient, the material will flow. If you charge, it will flow at a much slower pace,” he says. “The material is out there, but most people don’t want to pay.”
Alcorn says OEM takeback laws have encouraged residents to recycle their old televisions, but they have also created an upside-down market that adds to the existing challenges CRT recyclers face. “EPR is forcing recycling of leaded glass while there’s no real demand and no one is buying old CRT glass. … This has both supported and perverted the market,” he says.
Stockpiling continues to be a problem for recyclers, and one company has proposed a controversial solution. Kuusakoski (Plainfield, Ill.), which at one time used treated CRT glass as alternative daily cover at a landfill in Illinois, announced plans to phase out that usage and instead store the CRT glass in a retrievable cell at the landfill. The company said it wanted to stop using CRT glass as ADC because certification bodies said it did not constitute recycling, and any CRT glass used for ADC could not be counted toward manufacturer recycling quotas. ISRI was among the opponents of using the glass as ADC, Harris says. “If [OEMs] are required by law to recycle, and they want the credit for that, they certainly shouldn’t be getting credit for putting it in a landfill,” he says.
On its blog, Kuusakoski argues that retrievable storage is “preferable to disposal because it preserves CRT glass for future recycling.” The company’s Illinois-based retrievable storage area has the capacity to accept 50,000 tons of CRT glass annually, it says, and the Illinois EPA considers the storage method “recycling” under its EPR law. Kuusakoski also says retrievable storage is “conditionally allowed” under the e-Stewards certification. Yet others such as Sustainable Electronics Recycling International say the practice does not conform to its R2 standard for recycling.
A bill put forth in the Illinois House earlier this year would have helped Kuusakoski with its plan. The bill, which is now on hold, would have prevented certification bodies such as R2 or e-Stewards from revoking recyclers’ certification when they store CRT glass in such retrievable cells. ISRI Chief Lobbyist Billy Johnson says the storage method is not recycling, and the bill would have conflicted with the certification requirements of R2 in that state, “thus undermining the value of certification for recyclers everywhere.” Johnson says he and other ISRI representatives urged the Illinois governor’s office to oppose the bill.
It’s unclear when or if the bill might come up again, but experts say stockpiling and storage concerns will continue to be an issue in the coming years. Harris says retrievable storage is a tricky subject. “As a recycling organization, ISRI advocates for responsible recycling,” he says. He is skeptical that retrievable storage is the best solution, especially because “there is ample capacity in the marketplace for CRTs,” and retrievable storage might prevent recyclers from recycling the other commodities in a CRT, such as copper wire, other metals, plastic, and non-leaded glass. Those commodities need to be recycled, not held in a storage facility, he says. If Illinois or other states were to allow retrievable storage, he believes it should only be specifically for leaded glass.
Keogh says she is open to the idea of using retrievable storage as one way to help solve the problems surrounding CRT recycling. “We need to start considering more options, even unpopular ones,” she says. Retrievable storage could help consumers better manage feedstock safely, avoiding the horror stories of fires or lead seepage, she argues. Yet she understands why some are so opposed to it. “To many people, that will never be considered recycling, even if it is stored in a manner that is highly regulated and protected,” she says. And, she adds, the industry hasn’t given people much peace of mind, either. “We’ve seen people try to store it in the past make such a mess of things.”
Though CRT glass recycling is subject to EPA regulations and is subject to OEM takeback laws in half of the country, enforcement of such laws can vary, Dimino says. “A lot of state programs, once they sign off on an OEM’s plan, are hands-off. We need more oversight, more enforcement,” Harris adds. Experts have different ideas of how to pursue that goal, but Keogh says she has her own “perfect world” list: Glass processors would be required to have a closure plan, a permit to process glass, and provide mass balance numbers regularly to a regulatory agency. They also would be subject to periodic, unannounced inspections, and recyclers would be on the hook to make sure their downstreams are “legitimate.” She says several other countries in Latin America, Asia, and the European Union have implemented these regulations and have well-run facilities as a result. Technologies Displays Mexicana (Mexicali, Mexico), which processes CRT glass from the United States before sending it to Videocon, is one example, she says. “I know people don’t like regulations. I understand. But in the long run, [following regulations] is much cheaper than what it must cost to keep moving piles of CRT glass” because a failing recycling facility “has overplayed their hand,” she says.
Another possible solution is improving existing legislation to make it fit better with the realities—and costs—of recycling CRTs, Harris says. OEM takeback programs must address the real cost of recycling, and most often, OEMs must be the ones to pay those costs so recyclers can do the job safely, he says. “The negotiated price to collect and recycle CRTs needs to reflect the cost to do just that,” he says. “Cost is always the major issue, but no one wants to pay.” Long, in the meantime, says he is starting to see a shift in the industry’s attitude, though it could take some time before that is reflected in the market. “There is starting to be a general acceptance, not just acknowledgement,” that recycling CRTs will come at a cost.
PSI helps work with other local stakeholders to iron out some of the EPR kinks, including cost concerns, Dimino says. PSI gives them “technical assistance so they can determine which options work well in their state,” she says. Recyclers and legislators often use this information to lobby for new or amended EPR laws. Recently, Minnesota passed a law that raised the state’s recycling performance goal and requires OEMs to cover the full cost of recycling, not just a percentage, she says.
Connecticut also has come up with an EPR law that begins to address cost balancing, though it has given some OEMs heartburn, Harris says. The state sets the price OEMs have to pay recyclers, “so it’s less reflective of the market, and recyclers are getting paid what they need to get paid to get the job done.” Meanwhile, California has addressed costs in a different way. Consumers pay a fee upfront when they buy a new electronic device, and that fee helps fund the recycling effort.
Some combination of regulatory enforcement, better funding mechanisms, and creative problem-solving could be the key to moving CRT recycling forward in a healthy way, Keogh says. She and others say it could take years because legislative and cultural buy-in take time. Doing nothing is not an option, she says. “Some people say, ‘Just let it play out on its own.’ It won’t.”
Though there are no easy answers, the industry must keep working to responsibly recycle CRTs to keep them from ending up in the landfill, Long says. “There’s no silver bullet, but there has to be a model of shared responsibility.” That model doesn’t just apply to CRTs, Harris adds. Finding good solutions for CRT recycling will help set a precedent for the next end-of-life electronics that have their own challenges, such as used electronics that contain mercury or other hazardous substances. “There’s always a temptation to say, ‘Just landfill it all and cleanse the market of CRTs,’” he says. “But what about the next generation of material, the LEDs, the LCDs?” The industry must continue to work on creating and following responsible recycling policies, he says. “Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it won’t be good in the long run.”
Megan Quinn is reporter/writer for Scrap.