Old color televisions. VCRs. Personal computers. Cellular telephones. Sony PlayStation2s.
They are dust collectors now, waiting for the trash heap.
But don’t dare put them out on the curb. You’ll be subject to a fine of $100 or more.
Electronic devices contain metals and hazardous elements, and a state law that took effect Jan. 1 prohibits people from throwing them away with the regular household trash.
But there have been some hiccups in the change. And it’s the old TV sets that seem to be causing the most stress.
Before the arrival of flat-screen televisions and computer monitors, up to one-quarter of the glass tube inside an old cathode-ray tube set contained lead.
Now, some places listed on the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s eRecycle list don’t accept the CRT sets for recycling.
Goodwill has stopped accepting them. So, too, have AMVETS and the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
It was starting to cost the charities money – up to 35 cents a pound.
That’s because late last year – with the new law about to take effect – costs shifted to the collectors of the old televisions.
Recycling firms were starting to pay higher costs to have the leaded glass recycled. Those costs were passed along to those collecting the television sets from the public, including municipalities and charities.
Instead of being paid a few cents per pound, the charities began paying to recycle.
It amounted to hundreds of dollars for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in December.
“When you give some of these items to a charity, your intention – as good as it might be – is not necessarily helping the charity,” said Mark Zirnheld, the executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which operates a discount store in the 1200 block of Main Street.
“We’re just asking people to work with us,” he said. “Our margins are thin.”
Tracie Stefanik, the warehouse coordinator for Goodwill, said costs drove Goodwill’s decision to stop accepting cathode-ray tube sets as of Nov. 1.
“There is just no demand for us to put (them) out in our stores. Everyone wants the new ones,” Stefanik said.
Goodwill does a lot of business with Sunking – a local electronics recycling firm – but the recycler started charging the charity to recycle old television sets.
The economics of recycling dictated that, said Adam Shine, Sunking’s vice president.
Up to 70 percent of the overall weight Sunking receives comes from old television sets.
“There’s a substantial cost involved,” Shine said.
Under a 2011 state law, manufacturers of electronics are supposed to pay into a fund for recycling them.
But Shine said that amount doesn’t come close to covering the costs involved.
“If recyclers are taking a loss on 65 to 70 percent of material, it’s not a sustainable business model,” Shine said. “Recyclers like ourselves have had to start levying charges against the collectors like municipalities and charities.”
Those charges range from about 10 cents per pound for a set that is intact to 35 cents or more per pound for sets that are broken.
That’s because the lead from the broken tube can be dispersed through the rest of the unit, contaminating it, which leads to higher costs to clean it up.
CRT televisions have two types of glass – a non-leaded panel glass that comprises the front of the screen and leaded funnel glass that makes up the inside tube.
When someone drops off electronics at a charity as a donation, the charity determines if the device works.
If it does, it’s often put up for resale at a thrift store.
If it doesn’t work, or has no market value, charities often recycle them. For some items, like computers, hard drives and almost anything but old televisions or old-fashioned computer monitors, the charity is paid a few cents per pound by the recycler for the value of the scrap materials.
The old cathode-ray tube sets, however, cost money all the way up the line because the charity is required to pay a per-pound price to the recycler and then the recycler is charged by the end user to complete a costly process of extracting the lead from the glass.
At Sunking, workers dismantle the televisions into pieces and ship the glass to Nulife Glass Inc. in Chautauqua County.
The Sheridan firm then separates the unleaded panel glass – the front screen of the television – from the leaded glass inside the tube. Using a special furnace, the glass company separates the lead from the glass and repurposes it.
Some of the glass winds up as jewelry, tiles or other items. And the lead is extracted and sold for other uses.
Those dropping off their electronics at recycling centers might be surprised – and alarmed – to learn about some of the components: gold, silver, copper, cadmium, mercury and lead.
All had a role in making those electronics tick.
Gold is necessary in circuit boards because it doesn’t oxidize and offers strong electrical resistance. Silver is ubiquitous in computer equipment, televisions and household appliances because of its high conductivity. Copper is used in wiring. Cadmium is an anti-corrosive material and widely used in batteries.
That’s why the industry has dubbed electronics recycling “urban mining.”
It “recovers 40 to 50 times more precious metals than from mined ore, requires significantly less energy and leaves a smaller environmental footprint,” according to R2 Solutions, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to “responsible recycling.”
Estimates by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency show that for every 1 million smartphones that are recycled, 75 pounds of gold, 772 pounds of silver and 35,274 pounds of copper are recovered and reused. Friday’s market value of that volume of precious metals was more than $221,000.
Even harmful elements like mercury and lead still find essential uses in the electronics industry.
Mercury helps backlight the screens on liquid-crystal display (LCD) products like cameras, televisions, computer monitors and the like. Besides being used as a protective mechanism in CRT sets, lead is also still used inside some electronics for soldering some components.
Charities aren’t the only entities that stopped taking CRT televisions and monitors.
Cheektowaga stopped picking up old televisions on trash day shortly after the state enacted the Electronic Equipment Recycling and Reuse Act in 2010. Within a year, the town started offering e-waste drop offs.
That might be why David Longo, the town’s general crew chief, said his men haven’t seen many old television sets since Jan. 1.
And, if they do, a resident is usually just warned that it’s illegal to put out with the trash.
“It’s not to put the screws to anybody, it’s just to make them aware that you can’t put it out anymore,” Longo said.
He said no one’s been cited under the new law.
Longo admits it could get interesting when the thaw comes this spring.
“Once the snow is gone and you can see what’s out there, I’m sure you’re going to see electronics pitched in different places,” Longo said.
Where to go
There are options for recycling the old television sets. It takes some effort but not necessarily money.
The Salvation Army still accepts old-style televisions.
The agency partners with California-based Electronic Recyclers International, Inc., providing a cost-neutral option to recycle old sets, according to Envoy Bryden Swires, the administrator for the Salvation Army’s adult rehabilitation center in Buffalo.
The Salvation Army finds demand still exists for the old-fashioned sets and second-hand electronics, including desktop and laptop computers.
“What’s usable we try to sell second-hand in our stores,” Swires said.
Customers have visited the Salvation Army’s Thrift Store shopping for a secondary residence like a cottage or trailer, for instance.
“They say, ‘I don’t need a 51-inch television for the cottage on the lake,’ ” Swires said. “You’d be surprised.”
“For us, being able to sell what we can in our thrift stores is a huge benefit to us. The revenue we make in our stores helps fund our drug and alcohol program.”
Area Best Buy stores also take the unwanted or worn out electronics.
“We do everything,” said Brittany Czajka, a customer service associate at the Best Buy store at Walden Galleria. “We’ve done printers, the old dialing telephones, VCR tapes, old DVD players.”
Recycling is free and no purchase is required.
“They can actually just bring it in,” Czajka said.
Consumers can also seek out e-recycling programs in their cities, towns and villages.
Susan C. Attridge, the recycling coordinator for the city of Buffalo’s Department of Public Works, oversees one of the largest municipal e-recycling ventures in Western New York.
Last week, 24 shrink-wrapped pallets filled with old televisions, VCRs, computers and other used electronics were loaded onto a tractor-trailer bound for dismantling and recycling to an Electronic Recyclers International facility.
The electronics recycling dropoff at the city’s engineering garage at 1120 Seneca St. is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Monday through Friday. On the first Saturday of every month, the city opens the garage for e-recycling dropoffs from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Senior citizens or disabled residents can call to arrange for a pickup by the city at 311 or 851-4890.
Buffalo’s electronics dropoff is open only to city residents because Attridge said the city incurs costs to run the program.
It’s the first step in a long recycling process, she said.
“We don’t make money, but we have to have it,” Attridge said. “There’s a huge need.”
And, it’s now the law – a law the city enforces.
“There’s no reason people should be putting it on the curb anymore,” Attridge said.