The statistics change depending on where they come from, but researchers at Purdue University believe that the US generated approximately 3 million tons of e-waste in 2007. As more and more people retire their LCD flat screen TVs and monitors manufactured before 2009, the problem is going to get worse. Those models are backlit with cold cathode fluorescent lamps that contain mercury, making them hazardous to dispose of or incinerate. Electronics also contain toxic materials and brominated flame retardants that can leach into ground water.
Although LCD hardware can easily last 10-12 years, with technology advances and the constant release of new models of all types of electronics, people upgrade their smart phones, tablets, desktops, laptops, and televisions/monitors much faster than is technically necessary. An assistant professor at the School of Mechanical Engineering and Division of Environmental and Ecological Engineering, Fu Zhao, believes that hundreds of millions of backlighted LCDs will retire each year and that without proper treatment, these used LCDs could lead to serious damage to the environment.
The recycling industry has evolved and worked on ways to recycle these displays that don’t require incineration or shipping them overseas. The process is similar to how computers are currently handled by reputable recyclers- the LCDs are disassembled in a way that lets them recover high value components, reduce environmental hazards, and keep costs low. The monitor’s housing is removed, circuit boards and metal frames detached, and then polarizing filters, glass, liquid crystals, and the mercury are separated while the gold and indium is recovered.
Since 2010, LED backlights have replaced cold cathode fluorescent lamps in most LCD flat screens, but even though LED screens contain no toxic material, they will still be e-waste at the end of their lives. Responsible recycling practices will ensure that not only will they be disposed of properly, but precious metals will be extracted responsibly.