Two More Controversial Electronics Recycling Practices, Part 2

If we examine the practices for LCDs which require repair or disassembly, on line, we find two things:
  1. Importance of using a "certified recycler"
  2. Toxic properties in the LCD CCFL (cold cathode fluorescent lamps contain minute amounts of highly toxic mercury phosphors)
However, you find next to nothing about what "process" is actually being "certified" to occur.   Shredding?  Retort?  Safe handling?  Packaging?   Lots of "white man ju-ju words" and very few VERBS.

  • Fair Trade Recycling Intern Adelaide Rivereau has written about the step-by-step process that happens in MY company.
  • has a number of tear-downs
  • has some good descriptions of LCD repair from the older models likely to be turned in to an "e-waste" program
  • Digitimes, the Taiwanese high-tech display industry periodical, remains the rosetta stone of understanding the display market 

What should an "e-waste" recycler know about LCD lamp recycling, and when should s/he know it? Time for an "environmentalist actuary" to follow the goods downstream, into the domestic and export recycling markets, to tease out the risks, harms, rewards and benefits.

- Handle with care
- Stop the "zero landfill" practices for CCFL

Here's the piece of info our industry needs:  Tell generators and collectors NOT TO ALLOW anything to touch, damage, or break the LCD screen surface.   It's the whole environmental deal, right there.   It's the 20% of information you need to accomplish 80% of the benefits of LCD "e-waste" recycling.

Ok... the 80% of information for the remaining 20% of benefits is a wild canoe ride.

fter the LCDs which have a power adapter have been sold for reuse, you have hundreds left over with no adapter, and cannot be sold as "fully functional".

The good news is that both lamp removal and plastic grading are best done by hand.  Shredding either one makes a mess.   As the anti-export activists at ElectronicsTakeback not ("Not Designed for Recycling"), the lamps need to be hand-disassembled, not run through a shredder.

Spend billions to move the bad boy to the worst end of life?
The bad news is a recycling checkmate when you get to the back of the LCD screen.  LCD televisions and monitors have a very small mercury lamp, which branches like a candelabra or menorah, into very thin lamps, which have mercury phosphorous, the same as a fluorescent lamp from the ceiling of a commercial office.   Newer generations have LED and OLED illumination. In both cases, manufacturers are using glue and impenetrable seals to make sure none of us makes a business out of repairing and refurbishing the screens which are broken.

As WR3A Intern Adelaide Rivereau has documented, the hand-disassembly of LCDs isn't something that requires a lot of technology.  Manual disassembly beats shredding.  But in her next post she will bear down on the one light but difficult byproduct at the end... one we wish to avert our eyes from.

Once the lamps are manually removed, in the USA or Africa, what next?   It's not newsbreaking, but as John Fialka of the Wall Street Journal reported in 2006, the USA and EU's mercury recycling economy is built on a horrific lie.  We spend billions of dollars to collect fragile spent lamps, which have no reuse or repair potential (truly waste, unlike untested CRTs).

We retort them, consolidating the highly toxic mercury from millions of lamps into a bucket of pure poison.  The mercury is sold to alleuvial gold mining communities in the Congo or Amazon, where it's used in primitive gold panning operations.  We spend billions of dollars to collect and retort this mercury, diverting it from a safe lined landfill, into the hands of poor people in jungles, and we call it "recycling".

It seems like Fialka broke a story so huge that environmentalists still cannot get their heads around it.   If we are making our precious wealthy neighborhood landfills safer, we must be doing something good, right?  Well, whatever the source of this "environmental injustice", be it social inequity or free market, it sucks.  The demand for mercury in the gold panning in Africa would never pay positive value to go and collect all these lamps out of trash bags, or the price to divert them from Subtitle C Haz Mat landfills.   The collection and retorting is a huge negative cost, and we can pay to get the neurotoxic to the African and South American children only one way - by charging very high "recycling fees".

The theme of "epic fails" by environmentalists is not meant to taunt, but to be self-critical, as we ask the manufacturing sector to be.  I write about the theme because I'm an environmentalist.  If the Red Sox have a pitcher who sucks, the team owner will hear about it from the fans before they hear about it from the Yankees.

Once the battle for reuse is lost, whether the lamps are retorted in the USA or mixed in as "toxics along for the ride", the mercury winds up in Africa.   Arguably, an African throwing the bad lamps on the ground is safer than the African who buys retorted liquid mercury from E-steward recycling for primitive alluvial gold mining, and I have witnessed the old lamps being reused from bad LCDs.  But the American company which sends these bad boys to a RCRA Subtitle C landfill is probably ahead of the game.  REcycling mercury back into the environment is bad, and no one is talking about it.

If you are sending the lamps - the focus material - to a Subtitle C landfill in the USA, you can now send the glued glass crap, the impossible, messy, zero-recycling LCD panel itself to the dump and forget about it.  Because that's the part no one is talking about anywhere.  The MSDS (material safety data sheets) say that those panels are safe, the TCLP hasn't been done, but no one wants them, and like the entire USA glass market we have defined "landfill diversion" to be a goal and they are likely to get sent for aggregate if you DID get them to a recycler.   It's a loss.  He's dead Jim.  We don't even sort pure green glass wine bottles, we grind them into road aggregate.  We don't want to send the LCDs there and they can just be disposed until someone figures out a way to refine rare earth metals or something.  In which case, a good argument can be made for "speculative accumulations - keep them in a box in the warehouse until someone figures out how to recycle them.   But if you are sending the CCFL lamps where you should - to a Subtitle C hazmat landfill - you have a place to send the cracked up glued up LCD display glass too.

Handle LCDs with care so they can be reused.  Once they go down the recycling path, manage them with hand disassembly.   But don't accept "zero landfill" as an environmental solution.  "Zero Landfill" is evil.  Sorry to break that to you guys, it should create some jobs for the web designers once everyone begins searching the term "zero landfill" and asking why not Subtitle C?

Conclusion:  The small fluorescent lamps should be hand disassembled, but not "recycled".  The correct thing to do is to dispose of these in a Subtitle C RCRA landfill, which costs about $100 per ton.  The money saved can be better used doing something else important for the environment.   Pretending that sending mercury to alluvial gold mining is a form of "recycling" is disgusting and wrong, and the fact that no one is speaking about it screams volumes about the priorities of our recycling community.   Charge fees and cover our asses.  It's gross and wrong.

Don't let collectors and generators mishandle the LCDs.  Americans should be instructed that these are valuable, not "e-waste", and that the screens need to be protected.  Perhaps we use the hg lamp standards in place for mercury fluorescent lighting, which requires the lamps be boxed.  Maybe we make LCD generators box their lamps to reduce breakage.

What we are seeing is that a system which was ok for the collection of sturdy, durable, 25-year-life CRT monitors is NOT working for LDCs.  The cost of a collection system which is "not working" higher than the cost of fully functional... which is no surprise.

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