Paving the Road to E-Waste Decline

As TVs get thinner and wider, is that an environmental victory?  Consumer Electronics Association - the association that puts on the annual CES Show in Las Vegas ever January, thinks so.  Here's their 'release article' with the claim that "TVs are growing lighter and greener."  It's got the mandatory picture of a discarded, broken CRT on the side of a dirt road.

We have seen many different "green" claims, many times. In the early 1990s, industry and environmentalists argued how "plastic is lighter" and "tin cans have more recycled content" and "paper is recyclable" and "glass is less toxic" etc.  Blabbing to people who were discarding stuff about the superiority of different discards probably obfuscated environmental qualities.  Green labels may even have been inferior to price and free market when it was time to predict carbon generation (something not measured in the "1990s packaging debate").  In retrospect, much of the journalism about packaging amounted to puff pieces - Which lasts longer in a landfill, plastic or glass?  Which is more important to energy, weight of the container, or energy saved by recycling?  But they did create a soapbox for "green experts" to validate their status.

No surprise that the green posturing continues with electronics.  Ten years ago, when the LCDs were getting traction, we believed they used less energy.  They did, on an hour-use basis, but A) all the energy saved was spent on wider screens, and B) most of the energy (carbon) is in the mining, refining, making the devices, and devices that last fewer years flunk the "green" test because they aren't used long enough to pay off the manufacturers carbon investment.

Here's a few interesting facts about big flat screens replacing CRTs at our recycling plant today:

1)  End of "Solid State" Circuits:

The longer lasting CRT vs. shorter lived LCD is actually eclipsed by a common problem in both devices.  Cheaper circuitry, bulging capacitors, lack of repair initiative (replace and displace).   Even the CRT TVs of recent years don't last as long as those of the 80s and 90s.  That's not the Cathode Ray Tube's fault - those things are built like battleships.   But as the CRT became "downmarket", less value was placed on "solid state" circuitry.  The CRTs are coming in non-working because they have the same "sh**ty capacitors" as the LCDs.

So I've complained about the LCD screens failing here in the blog, and not lasting as long as the old CRTs, but reflecting on that, I don't know that the failure is the display technology.  It may be the cheaper boards more than the lamps.

2) Durability

I'm shocked by the number of flat plasma TV and huge LCD screens coming into the Good Point Recycling plant.  A large number have an impact crack on the display.  The staff calls these "Wii screens" (Wee Screens) after the Nintendo Wii, which comes with a little band that people are supposed to strap to their wrists before "virtual bowling" or "virtual jousting" or "virtual arm flailing".   Energized Americans are throwing new gadgets at other new gadgets, and like a low-orbit-satellite collision, e-waste ensues.

The CRT screens, of course, would be nearly impossible to bust with a plastic Nintendo or XBox or Playstation gadget.   More durability demands more initial resources, but we should probably be saving large CRTs from the crushers until they make start the video game devices out of foam rubber.

3) Design for Repair and Overhaul

Repair and Overhaul is where a contract manufacturing plant operates at the same "scale" of production as a manufacturer, preferably getting large quantities of used devices with similar problems or similar elective upgrade potential.  If you can buy a million PCs with too little RAM, upgrade the RAM and resell them at a profit to a "good enough" market that cannot afford a brand new PC, it's a beautiful thing.

Green Expert Declares e-Waste
The CRTs used to get replaced back when the tuner boards were "solid state".  Now it's the CRT which outlasts the board, and they put newer boards (ones with digital decoders that can accept multiple analog bandwidths, NTSC, PAL, SECAM, NTSC2, etc.).    If the LCDs, LEDs, and Plasmas had been designed so you could pop them apart and replace things - especially the Wii screens - it would also be a beautiful thing.  Before CEA pats themselves too hard on the back, they should aim a little lower and pat a little harder and make the LCDs easier to upgrade and repair and overhaul.

So, according to this "green expert", if you want to really make "e-waste" decline:

* Support Repair, Refurbishing and Overhaul.  Get the most life out of display.

* Design for the display durability, some thicker (and replaceable) glass or rigid plastic across the screen.

* Design a used LCD collection Infrastructure to minimize breakage.

* Ruggedize screens, rubberize or tiny-ize the handheld video game devices.

* Recognize that used electronics create demand for bandwith, which is your road to new markets to sell stuff.  Car ownership is the biggest predictor of paved roads.

Will CEA industries make less profit if they take these steps?  No.  They make most of the profit on the richest segment of the market.  Allow those people to upgrade more cheaply means faster turnover.   If there is a liquid reuse market, getting affordable and refurbished devices to emerging nations will conserve wealth, and the conserved wealth will benefit the richest segment of the market.
Promised back in 2007

One day the display devices will be so thin and disposable, or perhaps just projected onto the wall, that all the money will be in the media, the software, the production.   Content will be available from anyone who can sing on youtube, patents will be exhausted, and in the future electronic displays may be more like used books, less the size of "kitchen appliances for the living room."

Until then, CEA should embrace the secondary market, the same as Ford embraced the used car market in response to Vance Packard.   The key to supporting refills, repairs, refurbs is to realize that in a GLOBAL market, that giving emerging markets a leg up will increase investment in bandwith and transmission, and it is the bandwith and transmission which will ultimately generate economy of scale for the markets of the future.

An idea so nice, I'll say it thrice...

Paved roads.   Before paved roads, there are used cars.  After there are enough used cars, the road gets paved, and it's worth it to buy a new car.

Paved roads.   Before paved roads, there are used cars.  After there are enough used cars, the road gets paved, and it's worth it to buy a new car.

Paved roads.   Before paved roads, there are used cars.  After there are enough used cars, the road gets paved, and it's worth it to buy a new car.

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