Could you deliver a solution to the television-recycling problem?

As more and more households upgrade their old TVs to the newer flat panels, a troubling question must be asked:  What happens to the old ones?   Over the next few years, an estimated one billion pounds of discarded TVs and monitors are anticipated to hit the waste stream.

Recycling seems like the easy answer, but, as usual, the reality is more complicated than that.

To start with, in order for a product to be recycled, there has to be a market for the recycled material.  In the case of old TVs, a large component of that material is cathode ray tube glass, or CRT.  Up until recently, CRT glass was recycled into new CRT glass, but the market has virtually dried up as electronics makers phase out old model TVs.

Additionally, recycling CRT is tricky because, like many electronics, it contains toxic chemicals—in this case lead, a dangerous neurotoxin.  Recycling facilities have to ensure that workers aren’t exposed to lead and that lead is not released into the environment.  And because of this high lead content, CRT glass isn’t suitable for most recycled glass products.

This leaves recyclers and state regulators in a conundrum.  Recyclers can’t continue to stockpile these TVs and monitors indefinitely.  And while many states have bans on sending these units to landfill, California is now considering removing this ban to allow CRT glass to be sent to landfills that are designated for hazardous waste.

But is there a better alternative to land-filling?  Could a new financially viable market for recycled CRT glass be developed, one that has the potential to create net benefits for human health and the environment?

And that’s where the Eco-Challenge Series, Environmental Defense Fund’s (EDF) crowd-sourcing competition on, comes into play.  The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the trade group of promoting the U.S. consumer electronics industry, has just launched “The Cathode Ray Tube Challenge: New Uses for Recycled Glass.”  This is an “ideation” challenge that is looking for new, out-the-box ideas for reusing CRT.

Over the next 30 days, InnoCentive global community of “Solvers”—scientists, inventors and entrepreneurs in more than 200 countries—will have the opportunity to propose new ideas.  The winning solution will be assessed for economic as well as environmental and health benefits, and awarded $5,000 provided by CEA. Up to four additional solutions are eligible for awards of $1,000 or more.

We expect that the ideas selected will require further study and testing, but who knows?  Maybe a viable solution is just around the corner.  We’ll report back when the results are announced in early 2012.

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