TVs are getting better and fancier every day. When it’s time for a new one, what do you do with your old one? Some TVs can be donated, but what about ones that are broken?
If your TV bites the dust, you can recycle it. Many of the materials inside a TV can be reused. Depending on your TV, there may also be some dangerous substances that must be disposed of in a certain way.
Can You Recycle TVs?
You can recycle TVs, but you can’t just throw them in your single-sort recycling bin for weekly pickup. You have to bring TVs, and most other types of electronics, into designated drop-off areas or recycling facilities.
TVs and other electronics are made up of many different materials, including heavy metals. Most municipal recycling facilities aren’t set up to take these electronics apart. To add to that, many of the components used in electronics contain hazardous materials and can only be processed by a site that is equipped to work with these materials.
What Are TVs Made Out Of?
The makeup of TVs has changed many times over the years, especially during the switch from cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs to flat-screen TVs in the early 2000s. Today, manufacturers no longer make CRT TVs, and the market offers a broad range of flat screens.
Flat-screen TVs. There are many types of flat-screen TVs. While their displays may be different, inside, they’re all made up of plastic and metals like:
The primary types of displays on modern TVs are LCD, LED, and plasma, though plasma is less common now. Each display type is a little different and made with different materials but generally includes glass and other elements to make up the display.
Cathode ray tube (CRT) TVs. CRT TVs, sometimes called tube TVs, were what was used before flat-screen TVs. These TVs were often bulky and heavy. In the back of CRT TVs were cathode ray guns that emitted radiation. To protect viewers, the glass used for these TVs contained lead, sometimes up to 8 pounds of it!
On top of that, color CRT TV screens often contained materials like cadmium and mercury. Cadmium, lead, and mercury are all considered toxic metals.
Are TVs Bad for the Environment?
TVs, especially modern flat-screen TVs, aren’t necessarily worse for the environment than other types of electronics. That doesn’t mean they’re necessarily good, though. Some of the ways TVs negatively impact the environment include:
- The manufacturing of TVs can release potent greenhouse gases including nitrogen trifluoride, which as a greenhouse gas is 17,000 times more potent than carbon dioxide.
- Many of the elements used to make TVs must be mined. Mining has severe environmental impacts like the loss of forests and animal habitats and the contamination of water sources.
- The elements used inside TVs can be toxic, and when the TVs aren’t disposed of properly, those elements can leach into the soil and contaminate water and plants.
While modern flat-screen TVs still contain some toxic elements, old CRT TVs were full of hazardous chemicals.
Cadmium. In the U.S., most people who are exposed to cadmium are exposed through their diets. This happens because cadmium gets into the soil and then is absorbed by crops. Cadmium is also found in cigarettes, and as a result smokers typically have more cadmium in their blood than non-smokers.
Ingesting a high dose of cadmium can lead to food-poisoning-like symptoms like abdominal cramps, diarrhea, nausea, and vomiting. Inhaling a large amount of cadmium may lead to:
- Bronchitis, when the airways of the lungs become inflamed
- Chemical pneumonitis, a type of lung irritation
- Pulmonary edema, when fluid builds up in the lungs
Chronic exposure to cadmium may lead to:
- Bone damage
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Hypertension (high blood pressure)
- Kidney failure
- Lung disease, including lung cancer
There is no effective treatment for cadmium toxicity.
Lead. Now that there’s more awareness of the dangers of lead, lead poisoning is less common. However, there are many ways you can be exposed to lead, and many ways it can get into the environment, which is why it's so important to recycle products that contain lead.
Lead exposure can cause problems throughout the body, including problems in the blood, gastrointestinal system, heart, and kidneys. Most significantly, lead is neurotoxic and can badly damage the nervous system, leading to problems like:
- Decreased verbal ability
- Difficulty concentrating
- Impaired hearing
- Impaired memory
- Impaired speech
- Learning difficulties
- Muscle paralysis
- Tremors and twitching
Brain damage from severe lead poisoning can lead to comas, seizures, and even death. There is no safe level of lead exposure.
Mercury. Like lead, mercury is neurotoxic. But unlike lead, humans can handle a certain amount of mercury exposure without negative effects.
Health effects of elemental mercury exposure, which happens when something containing mercury, like a CRT TV, breaks, include:
- Changes to mental function
- Changes in nerve responses and sensations
- Mood swings
- Muscle atrophy and weakness
- Tremors and twitching
Exposure to high levels of mercury can cause kidney problems, respiratory failure, and death.
Recycling your old TVs ensures that any dangerous chemicals are dealt with properly.
How to Recycle a Flat-Screen TV
Though you can’t just toss it in your recycling bin, recycling a flat-screen TV isn’t usually difficult. Many electronics retailers and office supply stores have drop-off programs for recycling electronics, including TVs, though some may charge a fee. Other places that may take TVs include hazardous waste centers and advanced recycling centers. You may even be able to find a center near you that specializes in E-waste.
To find a place to bring your TV, use the “Where to Recycle” tool from Earth911.com. Select or search the product you’re looking to recycle and then enter your zip code to see places near you that accept this type of recycling.
How to Get Rid of an Old TV
Depending on where you live, recycling a CRT TV may be a little harder. Due to the toxic elements in most of these TVs, some retail drop-off sites no longer take them. However, you may still have luck with advanced recycling facilities, hazardous waste facilities, or E-waste facilities.
To find out where and how to recycle a TV with a cathode ray tube, choose the “CRT Televisions” option on the “Where to Recycle” page of Earth911.com.