Hast Ye Seen the CRT Market?

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The Cathode Ray Tube, or CRT, is declining in production, declining in demand, and declining in numbers discarded.  Markets for CRT glass cullet are shrinking.  But most alarming - CRT recycling may be declining in "ewaste" importance.

The demand for CRTs at reuse factories, estimated at over 50,000 units per day ten years ago, has dwindled to a few hundred thousand units per month.  I have made a career chasing the White CRT Tube.  Now Amazon and Best Buy are setting up takeback programs for small cell phones, ipods, and other hand-held devices - probably to be sold back to the same factories that made them (manufacturer takeback), the exact same business model I developed for the CRT computer monitor.  In other words, sell them back to Asia, the same as you do warranty returns.  I'll be without a lot of CRTs to manage, and without many people doing something other than I've been doing.  It could get quiet around here.



As a technology, it was an amazing success.  CRT sales have actually outlasted LCDs.  That's right, the LCD factories are closing now, yielding to newer LED display technology.   The last LCD factory is expected to close before the last new CRT factory.  And the individual CRTs last longer, too.   TV and monitor CRTs which are turned in to Good Point Recycling often work perfectly after 25 or 30 years.

It was the cost of CRT cullet recycling which drove "toxics along for the ride"... the cullet was expensive to process.  Some say the harm of the lead melted into the cullet (vitrified) was exaggerated, but no one was happy to get a busted CRT tube without getting paid to handle it.  It became the definition of "unfair trade", and the "CRT Test" became a litmus test for "sham recycling".

The end may be in sight, but we have a long ways to go.  We are seeing a decline in the number of CRT computer monitors coming in to Good Point Recycling.  But the big old television CRTs are still coming in at quite a clip, driven not by failure but by the falling costs of flat screens.  They too will eventually decline in number... but for now, they are just growing in SIZE and WEIGHT.

What makes the CRTs interesting to write about is the roll they played in the demonization of "e-waste".  They failed TCLP tests, and regulators began to assume everything else, from ink cartridges to hard drives to plastic with flame retardents, was dangerous too.  But they were also a great tool... they last for years, are difficult to steal, easy to repair.   For Egyptians, African, Latin Americans - the 3 billion people earning 3 thousand per year, the people getting online at ten times the rate of Americans in the past decade - the export of working CRTs made the difference for internet access.   They were imported from people who upgraded display units as a fashion statement (Moores law does not apply to make CRTs obsolete).

What makes Ahab's pursuit of the Whale interesting, or Sir Gawain's encounter with the Green Knight worth retelling, is not "whales" and "headless knights" per se.  If the reuse business is killed now, it will not kill Good Point Recycling.  We will calmly pick up our head, and promise to come back for our turn.  No one knows more than we do about these markets, and no one who thinks they have leapfrogged us has really done so.

Notice in the chart below how CRTs are constantly forecasted downward... but stubbornly hang on (look at actual 2008-2010 data, not the forecast for 2011-onward).  Every year they print this chart, and every year it turns out that the LCD market has shrunk, and CRTs are still there.  They'll go away eventually - Samsung Corning's CRT furnace in Malaysia skipped its 5-year maintenance.  That's like not changing the oil in a car you expect to ditch anyway.   But the history of the CRT market is huge in comparison to LCD, and CRTs are still 50% of new sales in places like India.

4 comments:

Paul Gray said...

This is rubbish. LED displays use the very same LCD panel, only with an LED back light instead of an fluorescent lamp. They come from exactly the same LCD fabs.

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

Paul,

That's a fair point, CRTs outlasting LCD is an overstatement if you consider the LEDs to be just tweaked LCD capacity. The point though about the CRTs constantly outliving their predicted demise I think still stands.

The SKD or CRT refurbishing plants are still going, but the crash in prices in flat panels is starting to make them consider closing down. Demand in the market, which is the central point of the post, remains very high for display devices in the $20-30 range, and the only thing in that range is refurbished CRTs and used LCDs. Egypt is eating those like popcorn.

Paul Gray said...

The research you show is mine, and over the past 5 years I've been doing it we in DisplaySearch have usually had to accelerate the demise of CRT. I agree that there is little to replace CRT at the sub $30 display price point, but I have visited factories in China that are using e-waste LCD monitors to make small LCD TVs. This is a shadowy world, and many of such sets are sold through informal channels. Around half the sets sold in Indonesia are smuggled for example.

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

Great to meet you, Paul. I work with the factories (SKD - semiknockdown) in what has been called the "Good Enough Market". My time in Peace Corps and my studies (international relations) cause me to be a little more affectionate with the "gray market" than most people in OEMs. When the contract manufacturers, like Proview, BenQ, etc. stopped receiving orders for CRTs from the OEMs they contracted for, they began refurbishing secondary market CRTs into TV/monitors, as you describe currently with the LCD market. The data on the production from these factories is difficult to come by, but the 14 I surveyed in 2004 were producing about 70,000 units per day of refurbished CRTs. It's nowhere near that volume now. I sold about 30,000 CRT monitors to Egypt between 2001 and 2010... that was called "smuggling" at times.

I suggest you consider "Network of Tinkerers" about how Japan entered the electronics manufacturing field, and compare the descriptions in that book to the "shadowy" world of refurbs today. The fact remains that the Egyptian revolution would not have happened without <$30 display units, and Indonesia would not be the democracy it is if the people there were forced to buy "brand new". In the same way Ford argued against Vance Packard that used cars increase the number of drivers and increase the number of cars people own in their lives, the factories making affordable LCD and CRT screens are plowing the fields for tomorrows markets.