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Plunging Demand for CRTs Sends Glass Market Down the Tubes

by SIMS Recycling Solutions, SIMS

Reverse Logistics Magazine, Edition 56

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A Sims Recycling Solutions White Paper

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. Transparent Planet’s December 2012 report estimates that about 660 million pounds are stockpiled nationally as a result of the thresholds of smelters, limited demand from re-manufacturers and rising costs for disposal. It is important to note that none of these CRT-filled warehouses discovered in August were owned by companies holding either R2 or e-Stewards certifications.

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, 19 states ban CRT monitors and televisions from landfills.

Recyclers typically 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, for some Californian recyclers who want to avoid the costs of recycling, landfilling of glass has now been permitted as an option for disposition. With declining glass-to-glass and lead smelting markets, California officials temporarily lifted their landfill ban in 2012 to allow for CRT glass to be sent to hazardous waste landfills. West Virginia is considering lifting their same landfill ban to allow for CRT glass as well.

Until a permanent solution is discovered that can handle the demand of CRT glass in need of recycling, state and federal regulations may continue to grow more flexible regarding the disposal of this material. For the most part, this would simply be a result of the limited financial capacity that a smaller recycler can reasonably consider to maintain a profitable business; and is also why some uncertified recyclers – without the equipment, knowledge or resources to effectively repurpose this material – ended up leaving it behind.

Regardless of state and federal regulations, it is recommended at a minimum, to use a recycler that operates in accordance with either Responsible Recycling Practices (R2) or e-Stewards certifications. Other certifications to consider will govern additional environmental, health, and safety management systems (ISO 14001 and OHSAS 18001), and regulate information destruction (NAID) and the secure handling, warehousing and transportation of equipment (TAPA).
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