CEA Challenge to Innovators: How Can We Recycle CRT Glass?

Two years ago, the Nielsen ratings organization estimated that there were 114.7 million television sets in the U.S., representing 96.7% of all households, down slightly from the year before. With more and more content available online and viewable through computer monitors, tablets, and even smartphones, an increasing number of homes are becoming “zero TV.” That number has just reached 5 million, up from 2 million in 2007. With so many people throwing away their boxes, that means of a lot of additional e-waste, a big burden on the environment, especially considering that, according to EPA estimates, only 15 to 20 percent of all e-waste is currently being recycled.

This is particularly troublesome in the case of the old CRT (cathode ray tube)-style TVs and monitors, which are large and contain as much as 27 percent lead in the glass around and behind the picture tube known as the funnel and frit. EPA has designated CRTs as hazardous household waste, which means that they should not be going into landfills.

So what can be done with the leaded glass? Until recently, old CRT glass was recycled into new CRT glass. But that market has all but dried up in favor of newer LCD, LED and plasma models. That leaves CRT glass at the end of its useful life, all dressed up with no place to go.

California is currently considering state incentives for market-based solutions to the problem. But where once there was a healthy market, paying $100 to $200 per ton for the material, now scrap handlers have to pay that much to get rid of it. There is still a small amount of CRT production going on in India — about 12 million units per year — but that is expected to keep declining. According to California’s Department of Toxic Substances Control only three large metal smelters in North America will accept CRT glass in quantity, where it is used as a fluxing agent.

This is a problem that the Consumers Electronics Association (CEA) is concerned about. That is why they teamed up with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, (ISRI) and InnoCentive to create a CRT Glass Recycling Challenge.

This is a challenge-driven innovation program of the type that InnoCentive first pioneered more than 10 years ago when they were founded within Eli Lilly and subsequently spun off as a private company in 2005, bringing scientific challenges to light in a new paradigm that would eventually become known as crowd-sourcing.

CEA, on the other hand, has made a commitment on behalf of all its member companies to responsibly deal with the problem of e-waste. Their e-cycling program is an industry-wide effort, with a goal of collecting one billion pounds of electronics annually, enough to fill a football stadium, by the year 2016. They are the “seeker” in this challenge.

The first CRT eco-challenge, which CEA co-sponsored with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) last year was what InnoCentive calls an “ideation challenge.” That means it was open to all kinds of ideas that could be conceptual in nature, with a guaranteed cash award for the best concepts. Three “solvers,” as the entrants are called, out of the more than 350 who entered, were given awards.

These were:

  • Mario Rosato, an environmental engineer from Spain who proposed a closed-loop process for separating the lead from the glass in a form with high market value for a variety of industries.
  • Nulife Glass Processing Ltd., based in Manchester, UK, proposed a solution that utilizes an extremely energy efficient electrically heated furnace, uniquely designed to produce minimal emissions. They are planning to open a facility in Dunkirk, N.Y.
  • Robert Kirby, a mechanical engineer from New Mexico, who had the idea to combine CRT glass with cement to create tile and bricks that are tested, labeled and sold as lead shielding, for applications such as X-ray and fluoroscopy rooms.

The new Challenge, which runs from April 1 till July 1, is a step up on InnoCentive’s ladder in terms of rigor. It’s what they call a “theoretical challenge.” There is a specifically defined goal. A more detailed solution is required, and no award is given unless specific criteria are met. More than 330 solvers have already signed up to participate in this Challenge.

A typical cathode ray tube from a TV or computer monitor. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

A typical cathode ray tube from a TV or computer monitor. Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

I spoke with Walter Alcorn, VP of environmental affairs and industry sustainability for CEA, about this latest challenge. He said he really wanted to call attention to how difficult the problem is. Given the fact that the supply of raw material will necessarily be limited (he estimates 1-2 million tons), that will preclude anything that will require substantial investment. Then there are the environmental regulations governing lead; 25 different states have laws mandating recycling, combined with the seriousness of the hazard, which can impact the development and function of every organ and system in the body.

This means, for example, that any application of the recycled CRT glass could not involve it being placed in the ground.  This would preclude such uses as building materials, road construction additive, or oil-field filler. The new challenge allows more time for solutions, 90 days versus 30, which will perhaps cast a wider net. Because the economics are not particularly attractive, a “free market” solution has yet to appear. The identification of new applications for the glass could change that.

I asked Christian Stevenson, InnoCentive’s director of premium challenges about the solver community. Interestingly, he told me that, “We often find that when those challenges are solved, the person who solves it is not just another person in that same discipline. It’s usually someone in a related discipline.”

Hence, the proverbial out-of-the-box thinking that can sometimes completely reframe the problem and attack it from a different angle, leading to a relatively simple solution.

Further evidence of this is the diversity of the solver community. In a survey taken when they submit, they are given a choice of 20 industries describing their background. According to Stevenson, the second most common selection is “Other.” Yet a full 60 percent of them have an educational level of Master’s degree or higher.

In the first challenge, most of the submissions fell into two categories. First, were methods of purifying the glass, by safely and effectively removing the lead, allowing each component to then be safely recycled. Two of the three winning solutions took this approach. The second approach found new applications for leaded glass, such as the one suggested by Kirby.

CEA would really like to elicit more of these. Said Alcorn, “We are looking more for applications where you wouldn’t have to spend the energy to actually separate the stuff, where there is a possible use as a substitute material for something.”

Solvers, if their submission is awarded, must agree to provide a non-exclusive, right to use license to CEA, who, according to Alcorn, has no commercial interest in developing any such technology themselves. Winning entries must meet the fairly stringent environmental criteria, as spelled out in the challenge details (login required), as well as economic viability. Other criteria that would lend weight to a submission would include fast implementation time, suitability for use with other materials (once the supply of CRT glass is exhausted) and the applicability of the solution for government use.

Hopefully this Challenge will bear fruit, allowing CEA to build on their record of success in recycling e-waste. According to their second annual report, just released, 2012 saw 585 million pounds recycled, up from 460 million in the previous year, and past the midway point to their goal.



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