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Lisa Chirico headshot

'Zero-TV' Homes Spell Trouble for the Environment

Although we've seen George Jetson watch TV on a flat screen, it's not very likely that the rest of us will be doing so fifty years from now. Consumers are already watching more and more TV on their mobile devices or the Internet, and pushing their old TV sets out the door. How will we manage the ongoing environmental impact that the accumulation of toxic electronic waste, or e-waste brings? Moreover, how are electronics manufacturers implementing environmental sustainability efforts?

Tuning out

Dubbed "Zero TV" households by the Nielsen Co. since they don't fit its usual definition of a TV home, their numbers are steadily increasing. This segment prefers to watch their favorite content on a computer (37 percent), or Internet TV (16 percent), followed by smartphones (8 percent), and tablets (6 percent). In 2007, there were three million Zero TV residences in the United States that unplugged.  Today, the number of Zero TV households in the U.S. has increased to more than five million. Satellite dishes, antennas, and cable TV providers are all things of the past for this segment. Nielsen's study suggests that this new group may have left traditional TV for good.

Hit the road, Jack

As broadcasters scramble to create ways to adapt their programming to modern platforms, unwanted TV sets belonging to former cable subscribers are showing up in in landfills. The first wave of this began with the conversion from analog to digital TV. This prompted some consumers to purchase new flat-screen or plasma versions, and say goodbye to their cathode ray tube (CRT)-based sets. That move was, and continues to be, a blow to the environment, since the glass video display component of a CRT-based TV set contains as much as 27 percent lead according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In addition to lead, other heavy metals and toxic compounds lurk inside discarded TVs and run the danger of leaking into the ground.

Not in my backyard

The EPA deems TVs unfit for landfills, and urges consumers to explore their reuse options, or dispose of TVs at certified electronics recyclers. In spite of increased consumer awareness of electronics recycling and big box retailers lending a hand, the EPA estimates that only 15 to 20 percent of e-waste is recycled. The rest of these electronics go directly into landfills and incinerators, or are shipped to developing countries where compliance with environmental law is challenging. According to one report, e-waste from TVs will be 1.5 to 2 times higher in China and India by 2020.

Americans produce an estimated three million tons of e-waste each year. The UN Environment Programme (UNEP) predicts that if all sources of electronic waste are tallied, it could total 50 million tons a year worldwide, adversely affecting human health and the environment. China, regarded as the world's electronic graveyard, was the subject of the Basel Action Network's 2002 film "Exporting Harm: The High-Tech Trashing of Asia." The documentary detailed numerous people of all ages from one town in the Guangdong Province who engaged in unsafe practices such as melting circuit boards to extract lead, and burning computer wire to expose copper.

E-waste warriors

As technology advances at what seems like the speed of light, is our e-waste problem destined to become worse? This answer is difficult to predict, but with more organizations and electronics manufacturers making dedicated environmental sustainability efforts, there is hope that our e-waste challenges may fade over time.

The EPA's ENERGY STAR program has generated impressive energy efficiency results since it was established in 1992. ENERGY STAR-certified products, which have helped to reduce greenhouse gas, include: appliances; building products; computers; electronics; heating and cooling; and water heaters.

Samsung Electronics, Co., Ltd. created the Evolution Kit to fight the growing TV e-waste problem. The company introduced their new device at this year's International Consumer Electronics Show. The Evolution Kit is a small box that plugs into the back of the TV, and is designed to upgrade Samsung's 2012 Smart TV models to 2013 sets with the same features. According to the company, the Evolution Kit: "allows consumers to enjoy the latest features and services every year without having to purchase a brand new TV.”

Another electronics manufacturer leading the way in sustainability is LG Electronics USA. The company is working to significantly reduce the greenhouse gas emissions of their U.S. operations by 2020. In December 2012, LG entered into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with the EPA (the first such agreement of its kind) to work together with the government agency on various environmental sustainability initiatives.

Websites such as Nextworth and Gazelle offer money to consumers interested in trading in their used electronics, while helping to reduce e-waste. What imprint are you leaving on the environment with your next electronic purchase?

Lisa Chirico headshotLisa Chirico

Lisa is a graduate of the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. She is a marketing communications specialist who is focused on pursuing green solutions for our planet’s longevity.

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