It used to be a perfect circle: The glass from old CRT displays was used to manufacture glass for new CRT displays. This closed-loop, glass-to-glass recycling process involved collecting computer monitors and televisions, then removing and reducing the tube and separating the glass from ferrous and nonferrous metals. The glass was further processed to remove oxides, phosphor and dust, sorted and finally sold to CRT manufacturers.
This process worked well until businesses and consumers swapped their bulky, heavy cathode ray tube computer monitors and televisions for lightweight, energy-efficient and space-saving flat-panel displays. But because of this shift from CRTs to LCDs and other video display technologies, the demand for CRT glass has dwindled. This has left many recyclers with a growing stockpile of CRT glass and has created an economic and environmental need to develop new strategies for managing the CRT glass collected for recycling.
The Anatomy of a CRT
One of the benefits of glass-to-glass recycling is keeping lead out of the municipal waste stream. This is not an insignificant benefit: according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, CRT glass contains enough lead to require handling it as hazardous waste under certain circumstances. The typical CRT device is made up of between 15 and 90 pounds of glass, which protects users from the radiation produced by the electron gun and electron beam. This protective glass can be found in four different components:
- Panel glass accounts for two-thirds of the CRT’s weight and may contain either lead oxide or barium oxide
- Funnel glass houses most of the lead in a CRT
- Neck glass surrounds the electron gun and contains lead
- Solder glass seals the CRT and is 85 percent lead
And while CRT displays may be a dead technology, they are by no means gone. The EPA estimates that CRT monitors and televisions still make up nearly half of all electronics ready for end-of-life management. In 2009, approximately five million short tons of obsolete electronics were in storage, with CRT displays being stored at the highest rates according to the Agency.
Dead and Buried?
The challenge now facing many recyclers and state regulators is how to handle these remaining devices with the market for CRT glass shrinking and the costs of proper processing increasing in a manner that protects public health and the environment and, if possible, recovers resources.
State e-waste legislation varies from state to state and can be more stringent than Federal requirements. Many states have developed, or are developing, universal waste exemptions for CRTs. These exemptions streamline the management of those devices bound for recycling. Currently, nine states ban monitors and televisions from landfills.
Under current California law, recyclers have two options for recycling CRT glass that has been designated a universal waste: shipment to a glass-to-glass manufacturer or to a lead smelter. However, with declining glass-to-glass and lead smelting markets, California officials are considering a proposal to allow sending CRT glass to landfills. The Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) and the Department of Toxic Substances Control have held two electronic waste stakeholder meetings to discuss changes to the current regulations that would expand the disposal options for CRT glass. In 2003, California set the standard for electronics recycling by ratifying the Electronic Waste Recycling Act, one of the first such laws on the books. The state will again be in the spotlight as it tries to find a CRT glass solution that balances economic feasibility with environmental stewardship.
“State regulators should be cultivating a climate of innovation that encourages companies to seek permanent solutions for the challenges posed by CRT glass disposal,” said Steve Skurnac, President, Sims Recycling Solutions, Americas. “This is the time for everyone in the industry to focus on developing standards and protocols for cleaning and testing the glass and for finding new methods of reusing it.”