What Is Electronic Waste?

E-Waste and all it includes

Recycled TVs
Recycled TVs. Peter Starman / Getty Images

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) refers to Electronic Waste as "electronic products that are discarded by consumers."

That is somewhat vague, so think of E-Waste as the electronics version of what you’d find in the kitchen trash can. Only it’s a toxic mess.

This article will focus on Electronic Waste and how it applies to televisions. E-Waste, however, also applies to the following types of electronics according to the EPA:

What Is E-Waste?

E-Waste is the disposal of electronics products. Improper disposal affects human and environmental health because many of these products contain toxic substances.

Improper disposal could be dumping your old analog TV in a field by your house, in a landfill, parking lot or a recycling manufacturer illegally shipping it overseas. The key to remember is that improper disposal could cause a harmful impact that affects your backyard.

The impact of E-Waste regarding televisions sped up by the digital transition because of the many individuals and businesses that replaced analog TVs with digital models.

Hazardous Chemicals in Televisions

Televisions contain lead, mercury, cadmium, and brominated flame retardants. According to the EPA, “these substances are included in the products for important performance characteristics, but can cause problems if the products are not properly managed at end of life.”

  • Lead is the primary substance of concern because of all the analog TVs that are replaced due to digital TV. It’s found primarily in cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs, which typically contain anywhere from four to eight pounds of lead, which is mostly found in the tube.
    • Lead is very toxic to humans, especially children. Regarding analog televisions, the Georgia Department of Human Resources stated that a child exposed to lead “may develop anemia, severe stomachache, muscle weakness, and brain damage. Low levels of lead can also affect a child’s mental and physical growth.”
  • Mercury is not exclusive to thermometers as it's also found in flat panels TVs. This is because some of the lighting used contains mercury, which is “toxic in very low doses, and causes brain and kidney damage” according to Take Back My TV.
    • Lighting in flat panels has improved with the development of cold cathode fluorescent lamp (CCFLs) and light-emitting diode (LED), which don't use mercury.
  • Cadmium is found in the phosphor coating that lines the inside of many CRT screens. The EPA started regulating cadmium in 1974 with the Safe Drinking Water Act.
    • It‘s a potentially serious substance to long-term health. The EPA says that cadmium can cause kidney, liver, bone and blood damage if exposed to high levels over a long period of time.
    • Cadmium can penetrate our food source by moving through soil layers and being absorbed by leafy vegetables, root crops, cereals, and grains, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
  • Brominated flame retardants (BFRs) are known to cause damage to hormone and reproductive systems. They’re found in plastics, like protective cases, circuit boards, and cables for the purpose of providing fire protection.
    • The Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition (SVTC) reports that BFRs “impair attention, learning, memory, and behavior in laboratory animals.” The SVTC says that BFRs have been discovered in marine mammals, fish and bird eggs as well as human milk, serum, and adipose tissue.

Health Issues of Disposed TVs

The Georgia Department of Human Resources, Division of Public Health issued a statement promoting the reuse and recycling of analog televisions due to the digital transition.

In the statement, Dr. Sandra Elizabeth Ford, then acting director of the Division of Public Health, said, “We are encouraging citizens to recycle or reuse their analog televisions as many of these sets will end up in landfills and junk piles where they can potentially contaminate soil and groundwater.”

This health concern isn’t limited to Georgia.

According to the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, eleven states and New York City have disposal ban laws regarding televisions. Below is a list of these states along with the date it went into effect:

  • Arkansas - January 2008
  • California - February 2006
  • Connecticut - January 2011
  • Maine - July 2006
  • Massachusetts - April 2000
  • Minnesota - July 2006
  • New Jersey - January 2010
  • New Hampshire -July 2007
  • New York City - July 2010
  • North Carolina - January 2012
  • Oregon - January 2010
  • Rhode Island - July 2008

Accountability and Legal Enforcement

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) addressed consumer electronics recycling concerns in an August 2008 report entitled “EPA Needs to Better Control Harmful U.S. Exports through Stronger Enforcement and More Comprehensive Regulation.”

The GAO voiced concerns about American recycling companies illegally shipping old electronics to developing countries to be broken down, which is an issue because these countries have “unsafe recycling practices.”

As a result, the GAO recommended that the EPA start enforcing rules and increase its “regulatory authority to address the export of other potentially harmful used electronics.”

Where To Take Your TV

It would be nice if every business that promises to responsibly recycle a TV abides by the law, but that isn't the case.

A November 2008 60 Minutes report entitled "The Electronic Wasteland" exposed an illegal transport of CRT monitors from Denver to China that resulted in a town where man and animal lived in toxic sludge.

Possibly the best website to find a reputable recycling organization is the EPA's eCycling website, which lists manufacturer and non-profit recycling programs affecting consumer industry.