As recently as a few years ago, broken old computer monitors and televisions were being recycled profitably. The big, glassy funnels inside these machines — known as cathode ray tubes — were melted down and turned into new ones.
But flat-screen technology has made those monitors and televisions obsolete, decimating the demand for the recycled tube glass used in them and creating what industry experts call a "glass tsunami" as stockpiles of the useless material accumulate across the country.
"Lots of smaller recyclers are in over their heads, and the risk that they might abandon their stockpiles is very real," said Jason Linnell of the Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse, an organization that represents state environmental regulators, electronics manufacturers and recyclers.
In February, the group sent a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency asking for immediate help dealing with the rapidly growing stockpiles of the glass, much of which contains lead.
With so few buyers of the leaded glass from the old monitors and televisions, recyclers have collected payments from states and electronics companies to get rid of the old machines. A small number of recyclers have developed new technology for cleaning the lead from the tube glass, but the bulk of this waste is being stored, sent to landfills or smelters, or disposed of in other ways that experts say are environmentally destructive.
"The problem now is that the collection of this waste has never been higher, but demand for the glass that comes from it has never been lower," said Neil Peters-Michaud, the chief executive of Cascade Asset Management, a recycling company.