America's TV stations will make a historic switch next month from analog to digital signals. On Feb. 17, older analog televisions that receive signals "over the air" from a rooftop antenna or with "rabbit ears" will stop working. But what promises to bring a sharper picture is also raising the curtain on a big environmental unknown across California: What will happen to the millions of old TV sets that no longer work?
It's illegal to simply toss the estimated 2 million old TVs — chock-full of hazardous waste — into the garbage. In California, old TVs and computer monitors have been classified as hazardous waste since 2005. They contain lead, along with toxic metals such as mercury, cadmium and copper.
In 2003, a law written by former state Sen. Byron Sher, D-Palo Alto, took effect which charged anyone who buys a new TV or computer monitor $6 to $10. Starting January 1, 2009, the point of sale recycling fee increased to $8-25. That money went into a fund that pays private companies 39 cents a pound to collect and recycle the unwanted e-junk. To receive funding, companies must verify they are dismantling the equipment in California, and not shipping it to China, India or other developing countries, where child workers commonly break it apart with no safety gear.
As a result of California's law, there are now 650 licensed collection companies statewide. And whereas a decade ago, people often had to pay $20 or more for a recycling company to take their old TV or computer, today, most will take them for free, and even hold fundraisers with schools and civic groups to seek out more.
"By far California has the most successful television recycling program in the United States. It is the oldest, it has the most locations, it assures the collectors' viability," said Jerry Powell, editor of E-Scrap News, a newsletter in Portland, Ore.
According to Mark Murray, executive director of Californians Against Waste:
"We are going to see a deluge of TVs. I believe we have a sufficient number of recycling centers to handle the load, but my concern is that the public is not aware of them."
CAW and E-Waste Recycling:
- CA's Existing E-Waste Law
- CAW's 10 Point Plan for Protecting Our Environment and Creating Green Jobs --includes goal of "Zero Waste California", and assigning California Integrated Waste Management Board responsibility for achieving 75% waste reduction, recycling and composting by 2020.