While nobody’s building cathode ray tube TVs or monitors anymore, that doesn’t mean they’re not a continuing problem in the U.S. and the world. In the past, cathode ray tubes were directly recycled and used to create new TVs and computer monitors — but no more. Plasma and LCD screens have made CRT screens obsolete. Now old CRT technology makes up about half of all the electronics currently in end-of-life storage, waiting to be recycled.The problem with CRTs

Recyclers who have stockpiled millions of tons of these obsolete CRTs face serious challenges. Comprising almost half the weight of a monitor or television, a CRT is generally made up of three or four types of glass.

Because of the toxic components in the different types of glass, CRT glass is considered one of the most difficult materials to recycle. Panel glass, which makes up the majority of a screen or monitor’s total weight, contains lead oxide or barium oxide along with significant quantities of strontium.

The other three types of glass that typically make up a CRT are funnel glass, neck glass, and solder glass. All of these contain large quantities of lead — the solder glass seal on a CRT screen is about 85 percent lead. As with many recyclables, the greatest danger lies in the possibility of these toxics leaching into soil and groundwater.

Until recently, there were no truly satisfactory methods for recycling these “doped” glasses. Manufacturers overwhelmingly chose the safer use of natural glass, and even preferred to create doped glass using their own proprietary additives.

A revolutionary idea

In 2011, the Consumer Electronics Association, along with InnoCentive and the Environmental Defense Fund issued a challenge to researchers: develop an economically feasible, environmentally sound method for recycling CRT glass. The winner of the challenge, the Manchester, U.K. company Nulife Glass, has done just that.

Nulife’s solution was to develop a process of high heat furnace extraction for the lead components in the glass. Removed this way, the lead assumes its pure metallic form and is instantly ready for resale, while the glass contains only minimal residues of lead and can be used safely in a wide variety of products.

In 2012, Nulife began construction of a CRT recycling furnace in Kent, England. Their method was a tremendous success, earning nearly all of London’s e-cycling contracts and setting the standard for the world. A year later Nulife brought their revolutionary technology to the U.S., with a CRT recycling furnace in Dunkirk, New York. Opened in June of 2013, the furnace is capable of recycling up to 100 million pounds of CRT glass, and is a first step in alleviating the many tons of stockpiled CRT glass here in the U.S.

We congratulate Nulife on their innovative solution — and look forward to more great ideas from researchers responding to the challenges of making our world a safer and cleaner, cleaner place.