Clean Reception

A year from the formal digital-TV switch date, officials take steps to keep old sets out of landfills

On Feb. 17, 2009, the nation formally switches from analog to digital TV signals--and that could lead to a parade of TVs heading to a landfill near you.

If you have cable or already have a new digital TV set, no worries. But if you still use rabbit ears to watch old Star Trek reruns or PBS documentaries, you'll need a converter box or a new TV.

Those in recycling and waste management worry the switch could result in millions of TVs being thrown away across the country. Those worriers include the folks at Tucson Clean and Beautiful.

According to B.J. Cordova, Tucson Clean and Beautiful's director of development and community outreach, all the fuss comes from the fact that those old TVs are filled with lead-encased tubes and need to be treated as hazardous waste, not trash.

"While the regulatory side hasn't caught up, we've been thinking of ways to be proactive about keeping TVs out of our landfills," Cordova says.

Massachusetts and California are the only states with laws banning TVs and computer monitors from landfills. Cordova says that until Arizona also has such laws, local environmental and government groups are partnering to pick up the slack.

Tucson Clean and Beautiful--which receives support from both the city of Tucson and Pima County--is hosting free public-collections events for all electronics, particularly for TVs. Cordova says TVs have never been part of local recycling/reuse efforts, although computers and monitors have been since 1986.

On Jan. 5, at Tucson's Eastside City Hall on Speedway Boulevard, representatives from Tucson Clean and Beautiful, the Tucson-Pima County Household Hazardous Waste Program and American Retroworks held its first event, collecting more than 40,000 pounds of e-waste, including computers and TVs. A second event followed on Feb. 2, collecting almost 24,000 pounds of e-waste, from TVs to old VHS players.

The county operates seven landfills, while Tucson operates the Los Reales Landfill off Swan Road south of Los Reales Road. Keeping as much recyclable waste out of those landfills is Tucson Clean and Beautiful's ultimate goal. A citywide program began in 1998, when 18-gallon containers were distributed to residents. The city then saw 9 percent of residents participate. The current blue barrels were introduced in 2002, and participation increased to 22 percent. In 1990, Cordova says, the city set a goal to see at least 50 percent of Tucson recycle; now, that goal is more like 35 percent. Public-collection events targeting e-waste is key to helping reach those goals, Cordova says.

Tucson Clean and Beautiful executive director Joan Lionetti says she is pleased with the high response. Last year, the organization received a record number of phone calls from residents wanting to know if they could take their TVs to landfills, especially after the holiday season. Legally, they could--but that isn't want Cordova and Lionetti wanted to see happen.

"We just couldn't tell them they could," Lionetti says.

Instead, Cordova and Lionetti say, they decided to take the first steps in educating the public regarding hazardous materials in TVs. They also realized they needed to do something bigger--which led to the free collection events.

The events all began with Michael Rohrbach, of the Cochise County Learning Advisory Council, a nonprofit literacy organization based in Bisbee. Rohrbach, a retired IBM executive, approached Tucson Clean and Beautiful for help finding old computers the group could refurbish as part of its program that gets computers into the hands of low-income families.

While on the hunt for computers, Rohrbach says, he called up an old friend from Boston, Robin Ingenthron, a former Massachusetts recycling official now in the private sector with his company American Retroworks. Rohrbach convinced Ingenthron to work with him in the Southwest and help him get more computers and start job-training programs across the border in places like Fronteras, Hermosillo and Agua Prieta, Sonora.

Eventually, Rohrbach and Ingenthron wound up working with Tucson Clean and Beautiful in its collection work. Rohrbach says Ingenthron has a proven track record with similar events in the Vermont area, where his company is located.

While Rohrbach says he's excited to be part of Tucson Clean and Beautiful's work, he's even more excited about his partnership with American Retroworks. Getting computers to border towns has resulted in the creation of a factory operated by a women's cooperative in Fronteras. Women in the cooperative take out items that can be refurbished, and then dismantle items that cannot be refurbished, but have resale value. American Retroworks sells salvageable tubes, computer chips and glass screens to overseas markets, while Rohrbach's team sells the refurbished computers to support the work of the cooperative and nonprofit.

"It's turned into a great example of working together to create jobs on the other side of the border, and keep waste out of local landfills," Rohrbach says.

E-waste collection events continue, with American Retroworks partnering with the Green Valley Community Coordinating Council on Saturday, Feb. 16, at the Green Valley Presbyterian Church, 2800 S. Camino del Sol. Tucson Clean and Beautiful will also continue collections, with the next slated for March 1 at the park-and-ride parking lot on Ina Road a block west of Oracle Road.

Cordova says he had heard that collection events could work, but he didn't imagine the response would be so large until the first event in January.

One goal in getting residents to haul out old TVs is to create new habits--because the now-new digital TVs are even worse for the environment.

"If we thought the leaded glass screens and tubes in old TVs and computer monitors were bad, the LCDs are another level of hazardous waste we want to make sure doesn't reach our landfills," Cordova says. "LCD models contain small levels of liquid mercury in the screens."

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