Monday, August 26, 2013

Disposing of CRT Technology

Cathode ray tubes, or CRTs, were considered current technology just four years ago, before they were overtaken by solid state flat-screen video displays. Around 100 million cathode ray tubes are still in service in the United States as televisions, computer displays, and security monitors. They will be with us for years; it may take until 2032 for the number of cathode ray tubes in use to fall below 10 million. Between now and then, they will fail, one by one.

When they do, they may not be easy to get rid of. In Pennsylvania, where I live, it recently became illegal to put televisions and other video displays — this even includes cell phones — in the trash. Cell phones may be easy to give away, working or not, but no one wants a CRT in any condition. At almost the same time that it became illegal to throw away a CRT, local governments stopped accepting cathode ray tubes at electronics recycling collections. If an old television still works, you cannot donate it to a thrift shop; they stopped selling CRT televisions last year, and they stopped accepting them as donations a few months before that.

The only answer I can find is that is that you can take a cathode ray tube to a household hazardous waste collection. These Saturday morning events, usually at local government buildings, collect a wide range of hazardous materials from homes, and cathode ray tubes is one of their largest categories. It is not necessarily a happy answer. You can expect to wait in line for an hour or two, and if you do not own a car, you will have to borrow or rent one for the occasion. These events only happen a few times a year, so you might have to keep your old television on the back porch for months. But at least there is a way to dispose of your old television without spending a lot of money or breaking the law. If there is this little official sympathy for the problem of disposing of a cathode ray tube now, I hate to imagine what the CRT disposal fee might be ten years hence.

It is a problem I may never have to deal with. I only ever owned one cathode ray tube television, and when it failed, I smashed it with a hammer (much harder than it looks, by the way) and put the pieces in the trash. I also owned CRT computer displays; those were smaller, and I presumably dropped them in the trash can whole when they failed. But that was years ago when there were no rules. But if I do not have cathode ray tubes to worry about, I do have fluorescent lights to dispose of. Those cannot go in the trash either. I am obliged to keep them safe at home until the next time I go to a hazardous waste collection. I may want to save them until all seven have failed to save myself the trip, but that will mean storing tiny amounts of toxic heavy metals in my house for more than a decade. It is the kind of nuisance that makes me ask, “Why did I ever buy something that is so hard to dispose of?”

Of course, people have mostly stopped buying cathode ray tubes, and fluorescent light bulbs will fade away in the coming years for the same reason. I wrote about technology turnover two weeks ago, and this is perhaps a more poignant example. That television you bought 8 years ago? It is now so old you can’t even throw it away.