The market for cathode ray tube (CRT) glass is shrinking and it's only getting smaller, as more and more old televisions and monitors are being recycled instead of being landfilled, said Steve Skurnac, president of Sims Recycling Solutions.
"I think we're already [at the saturation point] in the market," he said. "There's a lot of glass in California that is having a hard time finding a home. Easily within the next year, a similar issue is going to crop up in other jurisdictions."
The California Department of Toxic Substances Control (DTSC) recently announced emergency regulations to allow for the disposal of residual CRT glass into hazardous waste landfills if recyclers cannot find a suitable reuse for the glass.
Despite the new regulations, Andre Algazi, chief of the consumer products section of DTSC, said he doesn't expect electronic recyclers to be lining up at landfills.
"Disposal of hazardous waste is costly and highly regulated," he said. "We don't think hazardous waste disposal is going to be all that attractive of an option."
Previously, the glass could only be either recycled by glass recyclers, which often turned them into new CRTs, or they could be sent to lead smelters. The new regulations allow for new avenues, including new technologies, for the glass. And if all else fails, disposal into a hazardous waste landfill is permitted, but only the residual glass would be allowed for disposal, DTSC said.
CRTs contain lead and some other hazardous materials, making them difficult to recycle. The traditional market for the glass is other glass recyclers, which turn them into new CRTs. But with the rise of flat-panel televisions, demand for new CRTs has fallen off a cliff.
"In the more developed countries, like the United States, CRT televisions and monitors have pretty much vanished from the market," Algazi said. "Even in the developing countries, that is becoming the case as well."
More than 4 million CRT televisions were produced in 2011.
"It's just really a waning technology, and as people are replacing their televisions, more and more CRTs are being recycled," he said.
Karl Palmer, chief of toxins in products for the DTSC, said the agency has been working on the issue for more than a year and emergency regulations will be in place for two years. The agency will look to replace it with some sort of permanent regulation at that time.
"In the next year, we're hopeful there will be additional recycling technology that will come online and be viable," he said.
Since 2005, more than 1.3 billion pounds of old TVs and monitors have been recycled in the California program with 100 million pounds of residual CRT glass recycled in 2011.
Neither third-party electronics certifier allows for landfilling CRT glass.
Corey Dehmey, assistant to the executive director of R2 Solutions, said there was a lengthy discussion on residual CRT glass when discussing revisions to the standard recently, but ultimately, the rules will stay the same.
"The standard has one exception that is when normal management challenges are not open," he said. "From the best we can tell, normal management channels are open."
Some recyclers have warehouses where the residual glass is being stored, but it can only be stored legally for up to a year, Palmer said.
"The concern is, if you do the math, if the market dries up … we're going to have a continuing buildup of the glass," he said. "And we'll have continuing buildups of these piles of waste and it becomes less and less viable economically for people to do the right thing, which leads to, potentially, abandonment of that waste or potential illegal disposal."
In California, consumers pay for electronics recycling programs when they buy new items, based on the size of the device. That fee is going to drop in 2013, Mark Oldfield, spokesman for CalRecycle, said.
Skurnac said the problem continues to build as more and more states ban CRTs from landfills. He said a new wave of CRT glass has hit the market in the last year because of various landfill bans, such as Illinois and South Carolina. CRTs will be banned from landfills in Pennsylvania in 2013.
Sims Recycling Solutions is among the largest electronics recyclers in the country with 14 facilities, including three in California, and Skurnac said the company sends the glass to various smelters and recyclers.
"We have commercial relationships with just about every downstream glass guy you can think of," he said.
The company is also looking into new technology, which includes a process of liquefying the glass and pulling the lead out that way. Another possible technology is crushing the glass into a powder and using chemicals to pull the lead out.
"Nobody is doing it on a commercial scale yet, but there are a number of companies in both fields that are trying to perfect this technology," Skurnac said.
Todd Gibson, vice president of sales and marketing for Romeoville, Ill.-based Vintage Tech Recyclers Inc., said it hasn't encountered a challenge in disposing of the residual glass thus far, but certainly will in the future. He said new technology, such as liquefying the glass, is exciting.
"I don't know if I agree with [landfilling] being a responsible alternative," he said. "Understanding those hazardous waste landfills are built to handle hazardous materials, it just doesn't feel right. It takes the material out of being recycled or reuse commodity down the stream to something we might have to mine later."