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Posted May 3rd, 2011

The 42-inch Gorilla in the Room

Flat-panel Processing: The 42-inch Gorilla in the Room

It’s a topic that’s often been bandied about in our industry; discussed in a somewhat philosophical way rather than with any hard-and-fast practical applications. Commentary on the subject has been mixed, as have the suggested approach methods for when the day “finally arrives.” Many have chosen to “take it as it comes,” an approach unfamiliar to us here at Securis. You see, we’ve never been ones to witness the writing on the wall and choose a reactionary stance rather than a proactive approach. So, let’s talk about it, you know, the 42-inch gorilla in the room…flat-panel processing.

The Facts

• By 2015, 99 percent of all video display sales and shipments will be flat-panel units (according to market research and consulting firm, DisplaySearch).
• The early adopters of flat-panel technology have already, or will soon begin to upgrade to new, more advanced devices, creating a volume increase for this product’s processing stream.
• The environmental impact of these devices, if left unprocessed, has just as many ecologically catastrophic consequences as previous cathode ray tube models.

Though flat-panel display technology is less than a decade old, development has advanced at such a rapid pace that units have become increasingly affordable to the general public. This high-speed evolution has led to an equally accelerated obsolescence rate for existing devices.

Additionally, outside factors such as a national conversion from analog to digital signal for television viewing has grown demand; facts which will ensure even more devices entering into the electronic scrap stream in the future.

The Environmental Impact

On average, a flat-panel computer monitor will see three to five years use, or 45,000 hours of operation, before it fails or is relinquished for disposal. These figures, courtesy of the Flat Panel Displays: End of Life Management Report by King County (WA) Solid Waste Division, are based on business and consumer IT purchasing cycles occurring at averaged intervals.

One liquid-crystal display (LCD) unit alone, dependent on manufacturer, is comprised of:
• 28 to 31 percent plastic
• 25 to 44 percent ferrous metals
• 10 to 23 percent glass
• 6 to 10 percent printed wiring board
• 4 percent wiring
• 3 to 9 percent non-ferrous metals
• Less than one percent liquid crystals (or cold cathode fluorescent lamps).

Toxic elements can be found in each of these components, with the last containing the most hazardous compounds. Cold cathode fluorescent lamps can contain (dependent on manufacturer) from 4 to 10 milligrams of mercury. Unprocessed mercury is extremely perilous to humans and has been linked to severe neurological developmental disabilities.

Additionally, beryllium, cadmium and chromium—elements most commonly found in conductive alloys or hardeners/stabilizers for plastics—each threatening to human and environmental health, are generally present in trace amounts as well.

The Concern

Because only a small percentage of flat-panel displays have entered into the recycling stream, the process for disassembly and sorting has been predominantly manual. Given the predictions of future recycling needs, and that no standardized methods for recovering these toxic materials from flat-panel displays exist, this will prove ineffectual and detrimental to both the environment and our industry.

Flat-panel manufacturers are looking to make greener products the dominant manufacturing standard within the next five years, however, as it presently stands, green models only accounted for 20 percent of flat-panel shipments in 2008.

Back the 42-inch Gorilla

Now that we’ve acknowledged how flat panels will play into the future of the computer recycling business, what’s next? Because the environmental impact of these flat-panels is as concerning as CRT (cathode ray tube) displays, Securis feels a proactive approach to developing protocols and standards for their processing is key to ebbing the inevitable tide.

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