Why it's harder to recycle your old TV

Free options for disposal of TVs, computer monitors have decreased

 
 
Updated 12/15/2017 1:14 PM

You vowed to become more organized this year, so that hulking old TV gathering dust in the garage has to go. But where?

The city of Naperville received so many old electronics at its new collection facility last year, officials had to suspend the city's electronics recycling program indefinitely.
The city of Naperville received so many old electronics at its new collection facility last year, officials had to suspend the city's electronics recycling program indefinitely. - courtesy of the city of Naperville

Choices have become more limited, especially if you don't want to pay a fee. That scenario isn't likely to improve soon, although a pending recommendation by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for new electronics recycling standards eventually could make it easier for all consumers to clear their homes of unwanted devices.

As it stands, permanent drop-off sites or occasional collection events remain as options for free disposal of TVs, computer monitors and other electronics. But there are fewer of them, as the economics of a complicated system that can be confusing even to those involved in it have caused those opportunities to dwindle.

"If you don't want to pay, your options are becoming pretty weak," said Pete Adrian, recycling coordinator for the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County. "It's complex, but the common denominator is nobody is willing to front the cost."

Manufacturers are required by the state to pay for a portion of recycling costs, by weight, for products sold two years earlier. The formula no longer works, because it's not the feather-light TVs of two years ago that people are trying to get rid of but the bulky tube sets of many years ago.

Until all of those sets have been disposed of, what manufacturers are contributing doesn't cover the cost to transport and recycle the tube sets.

Recyclers used to be able to absorb the added expense of dealing with leaded glass in TVs and monitors because the money they made on gold, silver and other materials retrieved from other electronics provided a cushion, Adrian said. In that scenario, recyclers made a profit and collectors, such as the agency or suburban units of government, were able to offer free collection programs.

But the landscape has changed and collectors who used to get paid by recyclers now feel lucky they aren't losing money.

"In the gravy days, nobody worried about it," Adrian said. "There are probably recyclers that won't make it through 2016 because the commodities (values) are so low and the manufacturers won't pay more than they feel appropriate," he added.

And while the value of commodities has dropped sharply since 2014, TVs and monitors that can account for two-thirds or more of the weight at drop-off sites keep coming like an avalanche.

"We are just not seeing an end. It's been crazy," said Jennifer Jarland, Kane County recycling coordinator.

It adds up to less money to cover costs, and recyclers have looked to the collectors to subsidize operations. While communities or other government entities want to provide a service, the added expense in some cases has been too much and programs have been cut or suspended.

"The trouble now is economics have made it a struggle or a strain on the whole system," said Lou Fyda, regional vice president of the Midwest area for eWorks Electronics Services Inc. in Elk Grove Village.

Solving the problem will involve a change in state law to be negotiated by manufacturers, retailers, municipal collectors, recyclers and environmental groups.

"It's a monster," said Jarland, a member of the Illinois Product Stewardship Council, a coalition of public and private entities working on the issue. "There will be some serious negotiations going on around the proposed legislation."

Recycling challenges

The St. Charles public works self-serve drop-off is one of two remaining permanent electronics recycling locations in Kane County, although city officials recently held a preliminary vote to close the site.
  The St. Charles public works self-serve drop-off is one of two remaining permanent electronics recycling locations in Kane County, although city officials recently held a preliminary vote to close the site. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

The 2008 Electronic Products Recycling and Reuse Act requires manufacturers selling electronic products in Illinois to recycle or refurbish a certain weight of what is sold as a way to keep metals and hazardous materials out of landfills.

Initially, TVs, printers, computers and monitors were set to be banned from Illinois landfills, but that was revised to a list of 17 items containing hazardous components shortly after the law was passed. Electronics were banned from landfills beginning in 2012.

Some toxic components common in electronic waste are lead, mercury, flame retardants, cadmium, beryllium and bisphenol-A, said Marta Keane, recycling specialist for Will County and head of the Illinois Product Stewardship Council. But some electronic devices also contain valuable materials, including platinum, gold, silver, palladium, copper and aluminum, she added.

Recycling old TVs has lost a significant amount of its cost-effectiveness due to the diminished market for those precious metals, said David Van Vooren, executive director of the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County. "We're finding it extremely difficult to find recyclers," Van Vooren said. "This year, we're paying more."

The agency has a contract through the end of March, and residents of its 23-member communities have two locations to drop off TVs but only for limited hours once a week.

Cathode-ray tubes are the most costly items to recycle, Keane said, with little return. The most valuable material in an old TV picture tube is copper that is part of the yoke but that commodity has lost half its value, she added. Jarland said TV picture tubes are difficult to deal with because of leaded glass, which is melded with glass containing no lead.

Separating the glass is an issue because smelters are far away and expensive and the tubes are heavy and difficult to transport, said Walter Willis, executive director of the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County.

"The recyclers have fewer options, and the options they do have for the (old TV tubes) are very costly," he said. "The manufacturers are pushing the recyclers so hard they can't make money."

Because of the expense, other options for consumers to dispose of the old picture tubes without a charge also have disappeared.

"Last year, Goodwill pulled the plug on TVs and the same thing happened with Salvation Army," Adrian said.

Opinions vary on how many old TVs are left, but the general consensus appears to be at least three years' worth.

In Kane County, TVs represented 60 percent of the 2.6 million pounds of electronics collected, Jarland said.

"The volumes are just going up and up. There has to be a plateau at some point but we haven't seen it yet."

She advised consumers who want to get rid of an old TV to be patient.

Diminishing options

An old TV that was denied garbage pickup sits in front of a house in the 2100 block of Burke Drive in Arlington Heights.
  An old TV that was denied garbage pickup sits in front of a house in the 2100 block of Burke Drive in Arlington Heights. - Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

Faced with out-of-pocket expenses and other issues, entities throughout the suburbs have suspended or eliminated electronic waste drop-off sites or programs.

"A lot of people are mad because they hear about these recycling centers and they're closed up," said Ken Santowski, a board member of the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County. The volunteer organization has suspended its monthly recycling drives in January and February because of an unprecedented volume of electronics received -- triple the average in the last two months of 2015.

"The amount of TVs we were getting was overwhelming and we're so understaffed," Santowski added. The organization hand-delivered proposals to the 17 communities and 17 townships in McHenry County detailing how to establish an electronics recycling drop-off site to include a nominal fee, but none has agreed, Santowski said.

Opportunities to clear your basement of the old beasts are still available but you may have to drive farther, wait longer for a collection in your area or squeeze into limited windows of availability.

IEPA Spokeswoman Kim Biggs said the number of registered collection sites has dropped for a variety of reasons, and not all entities that were in the program in 2015 have re-registered.

As manufacturers squeeze recyclers for lower prices, some can't compete.

Will County, for example, was notified by its recycling company Dec. 11, that it would no longer be able to serve the permanent collection sites due to a loss of manufacturer funding. The county has until Feb. 29 to find someone else.

Neither the collectors nor the recyclers are able to afford the costs of running small collection programs, Solid Waste Agency of Lake County's Adrian said, so the only way to offer the service is to regionalize sites.

Through arrangements with local communities, the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County operated 17 permanent drop-off sites in 2014, but has only five in 2016.

Paying to dispose of an old TV is an option for those who can't wait. Waste haulers, scrap yards, junk collection services and retailers are possible sources to check, Adrian said.

Waste Management, for example, offers special collections in five communities, most recently Wauconda, as part of the monthly rate of trash and recycling service. Prices vary. Many retailers won't take TVs but Best Buy advertises it accepts tube TVs smaller than 32 inches at stores and will take away console or tube TVs for free with home delivery of a qualified replacement. The Abt Electronics store in Glenview has an on-site recycling center where customers of new products can exchange their old ones, but that's a rarity in the region.

What's next?

Gary Smith of Aurora drops off an old TV at the St. Charles public works electronics recycling drop-off site. City officials took a preliminary vote recently to give Kane County 60 days notice it intends to close the site, though Mayor Ray Rogina said he's hopeful the city can work out an agreement to keep the site open.
  Gary Smith of Aurora drops off an old TV at the St. Charles public works electronics recycling drop-off site. City officials took a preliminary vote recently to give Kane County 60 days notice it intends to close the site, though Mayor Ray Rogina said he's hopeful the city can work out an agreement to keep the site open. - Rick West | Staff Photographer

Talk of change is expected to focus on a completely different premise based on observations and recommendations from the IEPA, which was required by law to review the program and report to Gov. Bruce Rauner and the General Assembly by Feb. 1.

The agency found that not all Illinois residents have the same opportunities to recycle. The law addresses that by allowing twice the credit for recycling from underserved counties, which makes it difficult for urban counties to vie for the recycler's attention, Willis said.

The credit is available in all but 17 of Illinois' 102 counties.

The IEPA recommendation seeks to ensure year-round opportunities to dispose of all devices, including picture tubes, based on population density instead of relying on manufacturer goals.

In that scenario, each county with at least 50 people per square mile should have at least one collection location open year round and accept all devices. Lake and DuPage counties would require five sites under that plan; Cook would require 10.

But any shift will require a change in the state law.

Fyda, of eWorks Electronic Services, said he understands the perspectives of all parties involved and thinks everyone has valid points: "The question becomes who's the one writing the check?"

• Eric Peterson, James Fuller and Marie Wilson contributed to this report.

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