CRTs: The price of progress

There are about a million tonnes of glass from old CRT monitors sitting in homes and offices - all set to become waste over the next 10 years

Today is a good day. The piles of CRT monitors that force me to walk an extra three feet on the twice-daily jaunt from reception to my desk are finally being removed. Getting rid of those ugly, clunky hunks of outdated tech and replacing them with thin, sleek, optimism-inducing LCD screens has been genuinely life-affirming. The whole office is now basking in the therapeutic glow of progress.

At the risk of gushing here, the new screens have also made our open-plan office even more open – for good or bad the beaming visages of colleagues are now completely visible. No more conversations with a tuft of hair sprouting behind a distant monitor.

Actually, being able to see each other might even help us break the IM habit that seems to have ensnared the whole team. Why go to the pesky effort of actually peering around a monitor and talking to someone when you can silently whiz a message across the office? God forbid we should use the chance to chat with colleagues to deviate from praying to the lit-up deity of the computer.

During a screen-break trip to the bathroom, I happen to catch sight of one of the offending CRT bricks being lugged through reception. Another one bites the dust. Only 30 or so of the buggers to go before they are out of sight and out of mind.

But looking at the rest of the offending blobs on the floor awaiting their fate, an unspecific wave of guilt hits me. It's the same feeling I get chucking something extremely inorganic into the kitchen bin -- only fleeting but definitely there. How long is that going to take to break down? A plastic detergent bottle must have a half-life of several millennia. It's a sobering thought that a liquid toilet cleaner container will surpass your legacy by several hundred generations.

If industry figures are accurate, then these feelings of guilt probably aren't limited to my immediate vicinity; piles of old CRTs should be inducing similar pangs across the country. There are about a million tonnes of glass from TVs and monitors sitting in homes and offices and most of this will be entering the waste stream within the next 10 to 15 years, according to the director of the UK Industry Council for Electronic Equipment Recycling (ICER), Clare Snow.

According to ICER figures released last summer, UK CRT-related glass waste in 2002 numbered some 105,000 tonnes. Roughly one-third of this glass contains large amounts of lead oxide and the remainder barium/strontium oxide. Studies show that when CRTs are disposed of in landfill sites, lead can leach from the crushed glass and contaminate ground water. Aside from the glass, there are some 25,000 tonnes of waste plastic in discarded TV and monitor casings, little of which is currently recycled.

In the US, California and Massachusetts have actually banned the land-filling of CRTs and TVs because of their lead content, and California will add a recycling fee to the cost of new computers and televisions starting July 2004.

Over here, government is making it increasingly costly to dump the things but hasn't actually gone as far as outlawing it. The new Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive will force more of the toxic boxes to be recycled into things such as foam glass or as a sand substitute in metal smelting. Strangely enough, one of the other options being pushed by the Waste and Resource Action Programme (WRAP) is to turn around 10 percent of the UK's annual CRT glass and use it to manufacture of CRT screens -- delaying the problem but not exactly solving it.

The good news is that sales of CRT monitors are predicted to fall to 0.7 million units by 2007 and to be negligible by 2012. Sales of LCD screens meanwhile are soaring with LG Philips LCD, the world's largest supplier, announcing that its profits tripled last year. Market research has shown that worldwide shipments of LCD televisions rose to 1.3 million units at the end of last year, up some 23 percent on the third quarter of 2003. Analyst IDC predicts that sales of LCD panels will increase by at least 50 percent this year to more than £20m.

But while the uptake of greener LCDs is encouraging, there's still a depressingly humongous number of CRTs to be disposed of over the next decade. Seems like a high price to pay for a bit more space and being able to see your colleagues. But then CRTs will have to be disposed of at some point and the replacement is infinitely greener, lacking the several pounds of lead found in its ray tube ancestor.

More encouragingly Sharp has already created an LCD TV Recycling Study Group and laptop computers and liquid crystal display monitors face a $6 to $10 "pre-recycling'' fee from July 1 under new California laws. Also all Hitachi LCD modules produced since 1st April 2003 have been manufactured using lead-free solder.

Let's just hope the recycling message has really hit home and we aren't facing the same problem with LCDs in 10 years. And hopefully the technology isn't going to get much thinner or smaller -- open is good but there's only so much of my colleagues I want to see.