Written by I.R.C.. Posted in Earth Matters Columns

Life has changed profoundly in many ways since our grandparents began their time on the planet. Among the most notable of these changes has been the revolution that has occurred in our electronic technology.

At the end of World War I, “high tech” was a telephone and electric lights. The first commercial radio broadcast (from KDKA in Pittsburgh) didn’t occur until 1920. The first feature length “talkie” movie, the Jazz Singer didn’t show at the theatre until 1927. Commercial television broadcasts didn’t begin until 1941.
So for those of us that have been around more than a couple decades, advances in electronic technology have been a series of wild and crazy developments. The television, computer, cell phone and, now, tablet devices have changed society and how we communicate. Yet, we seldom think of the environmental liabilities that have come with each of them.

Up until widespread production of flat-screen televisions began a decade and a half ago, televisions and computer monitors were almost exclusively cathode ray tubes (CRTs). CRTs have long used leaded glass that prevents breakage of the vacuum tube and protects the viewer from ionizing radiation produced by the set. Besides the lead, older CRTs also used toxic chemicals like cadmium as phosphors.

Though barium is used now to protect the front of the screen, the amount of lead in a television or monitor is still noteworthy and has prompted the European Union and many states to require that they be recycled.

Many hoped that the environmental liabilities of televisions would fade once flat screen technologies gobbled up a bigger market share. But it turned out that we traded one environmental problem for another if we used LCD or plasma screens (since they contain mercury). LCD screens also use Nitrogen Triflouride in their manufacturing process, a chemical that is 17,000 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

LED screens would appear to be the discriminating environmentalist’s first choice, as the screen has no mercury and consumes a quarter the electricity of plasma screens. LEDs are not without sin either, as it turns out, as they contain small amounts of toxic gallium and arsenic (in the form of the semiconductor gallium arsenide).

Computers, amazing and versatile as they may be, have some of the same sorts of environmental issues. Beyond the monitors, the circuit boards contain lead and cadmium, while some switches contain mercury. Brominated flame retardants are used on circuit boards, cables and the plastic housing.

Pennsylvania, like many other states, has recognized that recovering these devices makes more sense than disposing of them or finding them illegally dumped along the road, leaching their toxins into nearby waterways. The Covered Device Recycling Act forbids the disposal of those electronics after January 24th and requires that manufacturers financially support local recycling efforts like those at the Buckhorn Composting and Recycling Facility.

Whether it is the old black and white telly that has been stashed away in grandma’s basement, the more recent vintage flat screen that went haywire, or that obsolete computer tower, it’s clear that recycling these televisions, computers, monitors, laptops and tablets is a very good idea.

Electronics of all kinds (with the exception of Freon-containing refrigerators, freezers and air conditioners) can be recycled for free at the IRC’s recycling and composting facility in the village of Buckhorn, as well as several other places in surrounding counties. Visit www.ircenvironment.org or do an internet search for electronics recycling.

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