Digital Drop-Dead Date May Create Recycling Nightmare

January 7, 2009

On February 17, 2009, all full-power broadcast US television stations will stop broadcasting on analog airwaves and begin broadcasting only in digital. According to the Federal Communications Commission, digital broadcasting will "allow stations to offer improved picture and sound quality and additional channels."

Many people did take advantage of the holiday gift season — and low, low prices on flat screen TVs from struggling electronics retailers — to replace their old analog TVs.

...Which means that right now many old TVs are hitting landfills and recycling centers. So e-waste currently is an especially challenging problem for many local waste management and recycling organizations.

The US EPA recommends recycling old TVs and also buying Energy-STAR-rated new TVs. Press: Tisha Petteway, 202-564-3191.

On Earth911.com you can search for recycling options for various kinds of electronics recycling/reuse programs in or near your zip code. This includes options such as thrift stores that accept donations. (Older TVs can still be used in households with cable or satellite TV service.) The Consumer Electronics Association offers a similar service.

Consumers don't necessarily have to junk their old TVs due to this switch. They can connect an inexpensive receiver (digital to analog converter box) to analog TVs in order to decode digital TV signals. FCC digital converter box coupon program.

If analog TVs are still functioning well, then extending a TV's useful life with a converter box may be the "greenest" option. Older TVs often consume more energy than newer ones, but they also represent considerable "embodied energy" in their manufacture. Also, delaying their disposal can help even out demand on recycling and disposal facilities.

But procrastinators may face hitches in buying a converter box. Of the several models CNET reviewed in September 2008, only one is currently listed as being in stock.

Consumers can buy a converter box today if they're willing and able to pay full price. Digital converter boxes can cost $60 or more — a likely obstacle to low-income households, which are also least likely to have cable or satellite TV connections.

FCC reports that the federal TV Converter Box Coupon Program, which reduces the cost of the device, has reached its funding ceiling: "However, coupon requests from eligible households will be filled on a first-come-first-served basis as funds become available from expiring coupons. You will not receive coupons until funds becomes available. If you would like to apply for a coupon today and are eligible, you will be placed on a waiting list."

Interestingly, difficulty in obtaining a converter box could have surprising implications for how "tuned in" to the news many low-income households are in 2009. According to new research from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 70% of US adults rely on TV as their main source for national and international news.

Also, some analog TV users have reported problems with digital converter boxes. These problems can depend on geography.

The current recession has hit the recycling industry hard, which means that it's harder to sell materials and components recovered from electronics recycling programs. This directly hurts municipal budgets and can affect funding for local programs and services.

A May 2008 book, The Economics of Electronics Recycling, offers insight into how this industry works. Author: Philipp Bohr. Publisher: VDM (Germany), +49 681 9100-698.

In November 2008, CBS News' 60 Minutes covered the problems plaguing e-waste and e-recycling.

The National Recycling Coalition offers state-specific recycling info, including responsible state agencies.