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Getting Trashed: The Electronics Pile-Up

March 22, 2013

We love flat screens. We buy flat screens. We throw away the old stuff.

But what happens with all that old stuff, which has lots of toxic components? It piles up, and pollutes, making mountains of our hyper-consumer addictions.

Here’s the New York Times:

As recently as a few years ago, broken monitors and televisions like those piled in the warehouse were being recycled profitably. The big, glassy funnels inside these machines — known as cathode ray tubes, or CRTs — were melted down and turned into new ones.

But flat-screen technology has made those monitors and televisions obsolete, decimating the demand for the recycled tube glass used in them and creating what industry experts call a “glass tsunami” as stockpiles of the useless material accumulate across the country…

…In 2004, recyclers were paid more than $200 a ton to provide glass from these monitors for use in new cathode ray tubes. The same companies now have to pay more than $200 a ton to get anyone to take the glass off their hands.

So instead of recycling the waste, many recyclers have been storing millions of the monitors in warehouses, according to industry officials and experts. The practice is sometimes illegal since there are federal limits on how long a company can house the tubes, which are environmentally dangerous. Each one can include up to eight pounds of lead.

The scrap metal industry estimates that the amount of electronic waste has more than doubled in the past five years.

A little over a decade ago, there were at least 12 plants in the United States and 13 more worldwide that were taking these old televisions and monitors and using the cathode ray tube glass to produce new tubes. But now, there are only two plants in India doing this work.

This is just another reminder of how a failure to price the environmental impact of goods into the sales price (instead of the production cost alone) leads to manufacturing and consumption habits that trash the planet. Add in the carbon lifecycle cost, the environmental impact cost, and the recycling cost to a television, and manufacturers will make different, more durable, and less harmful TVs. And consumers will not be so quick to throw the old one away when they suddenly want to upgrade.

The failure to use this sort of pricing is, to me, the single biggest failure of capitalism and the free market approach. Externalities matter. A lot.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 23, 2013 12:45 am

    I’m glad to see someone writing about this issue. It boggles my brain that styrofoam and other destructive materials. However, I think that a huge part of the pricing problem is due to political problems, not to the free market (which unfortunately does not actually exist anywhere in the world). For instance, let’s talk packaging. It’s ridiculously hard to find basic items in most stores without unnecessary packaging, and it’s nearly always petroleum-based plastics. Well, it goes without saying that petroleum is a political commodity. That also affects the nature of the global economy in general, due to shipping.

    I do believe that most consumers, for good or bad, would rather buy more sustainable items, locally sourced, with less petroleum involved especially coming from the volatile Middle East. I simply cannot believe that the free market, completely unregulated, would allow garbage to continue to rule. So we have to look at where interferences are taking place, and once you do you generally can trace all the economic problems back to government.

    • March 23, 2013 12:45 am

      I meant to write “It boggles my brain that styrofoam and other destructive materials ***are so prevalent***.

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