America is home to nearly as many TVs as people—an estimated 275 million sets.

Photograph by Nikolay Okhitin/Shutterstock

Environmental Impact

Long-lived sets greener

Making a television set is an involved industrial process. It takes energy, provided by fossil fuels, and produces non-renewable materials that contribute to the growing problems of e-waste. But if you use your TV for its natural lifetime, something like a decade, its largest environmental impacts will be from energy usage, not manufacturing.

If you upgrade to the latest-and-greatest every few years, on the other hand, you’ll begin to leave a larger environmental footprint no matter which TV type you choose and how you choose to use it.

“Dead” TVs

Where do TVs go when they die? The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that Americans retire some 20 million televisions every year and that more than 80 percent of them end up in landfills.

This can be a particular problem with cathode ray tube sets, which are now being tossed in staggering numbers. Cathode ray tubes contain significant amounts of lead—four to eight pounds a set. The lead once protected viewers from the unit’s harmful x-rays. When a TV becomes trash that lead may leach out of landfills to contaminate soil and water supplies.

Recycled sets can fare better but that’s not a sure bet. Recycled TVs are often reconditioned and resold in the developing world. But cathode ray tubes may also be melted down to produce new tubes or products like car batteries. Many of these processes take place in parts of the developing world where environmental regulations are lax. And, far too often, non-biodegradable and potentially toxic TV components are simply chucked.

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