Wednesday, January 14, 2009


How to Recycle Your Rabbit Ears When TV Goes Digital

* by Ben Carmichael January 8, 2009
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Brian Stelter | digital | e-waste | electronic waste | john podesta | Obama | recycle | television | TV | TV Decoder

Photo by Roo Reynolds @ flickr

Today, six weeks before the nation's television stations were due to begin transmitting in digital, the Obama administration called for the conversion to be "reconsidered and extended." This is good news not only for analog viewers but also for the environment.

It's estimated that old TVs can contain as much as eight pounds of lead, a poison that can cause nervous system damage. In an episode of Now, Bill Moyers described the situation well, as he often does. "The lead embedded in a television or monitor won't hurt you as long as it's sitting in your living room -- in fact, it's there to help shield you from radiation. But when TVs and monitors are tossed into landfills, lead can leach out."

As households across the nation prepare for the transition, they will be faced with a question: What do they do with their old TV sets? Even if the TVs are updated with a digital converter, the rabbit ears are obsolete.

Millions of households will be faced with this decision. As Brian Stelter wrote on the NY Times TV Decoder blog, "In December, Nielsen Media Research estimated that 7.8 million households, representing 6.8 percent of homes with television, have not upgraded any of their television sets for the transition." Or, phrased differently, 7.8 millions rabbit ears are headed for landfills across the country.

The issue of electronic waste is not new. Peter Lehner, NRDC's Executive Director, described the issue in a blog post last July. Chris Jordan captures the mountain problem in his photographs. On Earth reported on the problem backing 2006. Meanwhile, Grist has reported widely on the topic.

John Podesta, co-chair of OBama's transition team, was direct in describing the government funds set aside to compensate consumers in the transition as "woefully inadequate." So, too, are our state laws regarding the handling of discarded TV sets and computer screens. Only two states, Massachusetts and California, require both are recycled. Of the twenty millions computers that become obsolete every year, only about 10 percent are reused or recycled.

Unlike many issues facing the incoming government, delay here may very well be the best response. But delay does not dally indefinitely; there will be a day when we throw out our rabbit ears. Some will even throw out their old TVs -- those tucked into the corners of ski cabins, of beach homes -- for whom conversion isn't a matter of access, but annoyance.

When households across the country do throw out their TVs and rabbit ears -- if not on February 15th, than in a year, maybe longer -- they will face the question of what to do. The answers aren't simple; each state is different. Federal guidance from the incoming administration on electronic waste would be helpful in addressing what is only a mounting problem.

In the meantime, here are some resources:

- A website hosted by TIA (Telecommunications Industry Association) allows you to browse e-waste recycling stations by a national map. They list both recycling centers and events.

- Earth 911 has a similarly helpful database, searchable by both product and zip code.

- The EPA e-waste site has some good information, including an interactive national map similar to TIA's.

- NRDC also has a page devoted to e-waste.

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