Piles of television sets wait to be recycled at Classic Computer Recovery in Lansing. The e-waste hauler estimates that 1 in 4 Michigan households will discard a TV in the next year. (Kevin W. Fowler / Special to The Detroit News)
Michigan environmentalists, electronic waste haulers and recyclers are fearing an e-waste explosion.
Up to 1 million TV sets -- toxic chemicals and all -- could be headed for Michigan landfills as consumers ramp up TV purchases before the nation's television stations are scheduled to convert to digital transmission Feb. 17.
A delay is possible. The U.S. Senate appeared close to agreement late Thursday on a bill to delay the planned transition to June 12 -- setting the stage for a vote early next week. President Barack Obama earlier this month called for postponement.
While many TV owners will keep their analog sets and use a converter box to capture the digital signal, others are using the switchover as an excuse to dump their old sets and upgrade to plasma screen or high definition sets with a digital converter inside.
With each U.S. household having an average of 2.8 sets, according to 2007 U.S. census data, there is tremendous potential for an avalanche of TV trash.
"One in 4 Michigan households will dispose or recycle a TV set in the next year," said Linda McFarland, CEO of Classic Computer Recovery, an e-waste hauler in Garden City, who bases her estimates on census data on TV ownership. "Of the 3.7 million households here, that's 946,405 households. Anyone can put their TV at the curb and the garbage industry can put it in the landfill."
The greatest worry of environmentalists is the host of hazardous material inside an analog TV: lead in the cathode ray tube and a wide range of heavy metals in circuit boards and electronics, said Mike Garfield, director of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor.
"Our concern is if it's disposed of in landfills, we are putting a significant amount of toxic waste into landfills. There is no comprehensive solution right now on what happens to electronic waste when people are done with it," he said.
Chemicals from broken TV sets can leach into ground water around a landfill. Landfills are often in rural areas of the state where people frequently get their drinking water from wells.
"We are looking at a direct threat to people's drinking water. We don't want this in our dumps," Garfield said.
Troy resident Dan Nykanen purchased a 42-inch plasma screen TV in late November to replace his 25-year-old analog set that sat inside a giant wood cabinet.
Nykanen, a 68-year-old retiree turned handyman, recycled the wood cabinet by turning it into a storage unit for movies and DVDs. He was ready to walk the analog electronics to the trash can at the curb when a friend reminded him the Southeastern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority would recycle the e-waste for free.
"I don't think I would have given it any other thought than to take it to the curb," he admitted.
Mich. lacks campaign
Unlike other Midwest states, Michigan has no official campaign to encourage recycling of analog TVs. A Michigan Department of Environmental Quality spokesman said the state lacks the resources to set up a statewide operation to promote TV recycling and is instead working with individual counties to make the public aware of available programs.
Yet out of 83 counties in Michigan, only 12 have permanent drop-off facilities for recycling and only six of those handle e-waste like TVs and computers, McFarland said, leaving Michigan unprepared for a flood of outdated television sets.
"We don't have an estimate on how many TVs will be thrown away. We don't know what to expect out of this," DEQ spokesman Robert McCann said. "The government converter program will hopefully keep people from throwing out something they otherwise wouldn't. We are encouraging people to find a recycling center or someone who wants it."
A U.S. government program providing vouchers for free or discounted digital converters to people whose TV sets will stop working after the digital switchover has run out of money.
The public may still purchase converters, which run $40-$80. But John Podesta, co-chairman of President Barack Obama's transition team, has said the scheduled Feb. 17 switchover date should be "reconsidered and extended" due to inadequate program funds.
Podesta said the number of unfulfilled coupon requests could increase by the hundreds of thousands every day. He indicated that Obama's economic recovery package would include additional funds for the transition.
Detroit Mayor Kenneth Cockrel Jr. is also calling on federal officials to postpone the switch because the converter shortage could leave too many with no TV service.
The postponement took on new life late Thursday as the U.S. Senate appeared close to a bipartisan compromise on a bill to delay next month's planned transition from analog to digital television broadcasting to June 12. If the bill passes the Senate next week, the matter goes next to the House. With the clock ticking down, the quickest course of action for Congress would be for the House to simply pass the Senate bill.
Recyclers host events
In the meantime, e-waste recyclers like McFarland and some Metro Detroit municipalities are holding drop-off event for TVs in the next several months. McFarland's business held its largest TV collection event ever on Jan. 10 in Lansing, where 712 cars waited in line for more than an hour to drop off TVs and computers.
In a typical year, Classic Computer Recovery collects 4,000 TV sets from its contractors that serve municipalities across southeast Michigan. By the end of 2009, through regular collection and special drop-off days, being held to "pull" TVs out of homes, McFarland expects that number to increase 25 times, or to a minimum of 100,000 sets for the year.
Dropping off a TV set at a recycling center is typically free and some require appointments, such as the Southeastern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority, which serves 12 cities.
Last month, SOCRRA held a one-day special event and collected 248 old sets.
Several electronics manufacturers have created "take-back" programs where consumers turn in old sets when they purchase new ones. Sony, Panasonic, Sharp, Toshiba, Samsung and LG have them.
Royal Oak is one of the few Metro Detroit cities that recognizes some residents won't bother to load the old set into the car and drive it somewhere for recycling.
During January, February and March the city is offering curbside TV recycling on normal refuse days. There is no extra cost to the city or residents. The sets will be taken to SOCRRA by the city. From there, they head to McFarland's CCR for recycling. State officials said analog set owners can donate TVs to a needy family or turn to "freecycle" Web sites.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
About the transition
Barring a congressional delay, which could come to a Senate vote next week, at midnight on Feb. 17, all full-power television stations in the United States are scheduled to stop broadcasting in analog and switch to 100 percent digital broadcasting. Digital broadcasting promises to provide a clearer picture and more programming options, and it will free up airwaves for use by emergency responders.
Consumers have three options:
Source: Federal Communications Commission