Pollution Problem Looms From Discarded 'Boob Tubes'

Toxic glass from old-style television sets and computer monitors could end up polluting landfills if new uses for them are not found soon, scientists warn.

Open up an old TV and you'll find a funnel-shaped device known as a cathode ray tube. These tubes, which are the inspiration for the term "boob tube," are going the way of the floppy disk as plasma screen TVs and computer monitors replace older, boxier models.

Cathode ray tubes, or CRTs, are made of heavy leaded glass, which is used to block harmful X-rays produced by the tube's cathode ray guns. The leaded glass is categorized as hazardous waste in Europe and most of America.

Fortunately, demand for old CRTs is high in developing nations such as China and India, where they are recycled to create the raw material for building new TVs.

But as plasma and LED TV displays get cheaper, demand for CRT televisions will likely drop in developing countries, analysts say.

Eventually, the amount of CRT "cullet" – the crushed remains of trashed cathode ray tubes that are recycled – will outstrip demand, and the toxic screens will end up in landfills, explained Jeremy Gregory, a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a co-author of a new paper on CRT recycling.

Gregory predicts this flip-flop in supply and demand will happen in a decade or less.

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology in December, used data on CRT sales and recycling to forecast the future of this dying technology.

"What we were trying to look at was basically, what was the supply and the demand for this end-of-life CRT cullet," Gregory told TechNewsDaily.

The solution for keeping CRTs out of landfills is to find new ways to use CRT cullet, Gregory said.

Possibilities include using the crushed glass in road fill or concrete, but the real goal is to find a way to extract the hazardous lead from the cullet.

If that can be done, the glass could be used for anything from windows to food containers — not a bad second life for the old boob tube.

Stephanie Pappas
Live Science Contributor

Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.