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DTV transition: Avoiding an e-waste 'tsunami'

Greenpeace and others warn of a surge in electronic waste as the U.S. shifts to digital television. Here's how to recycle or reuse your old analog TV properly.

CNET followed the last day of an analog TV's life as it was being recycled.
Erik Palm/CNET

On June 12, the U.S. makes its long-anticipated shift to digital television. As that changeover prompts consumers to ditch their old analog TV sets in favor of more modern devices, environmental organizations such as Greenpeace are warning of a surge in e-waste.

"We are seeing now a huge anticipated spike in the amount of electronic waste, really a tsunami of electronic waste coming through because of this digital transition," said Casey Harrell, a Greenpeace International campaigner.

And it's not just that the old television sets are piling up--as with scrapped PCs and printers, there's also the danger that they'll be exported to places with lax or nonexistent environmental safeguards.

"We're seeing a new wave of electronic waste that's ending up on the shores of India, China, West Africa, and Latin America," Harrell said.

Now playing: Watch this: Death of an analog TV

E-waste often contains toxic metals such as cadmium, lead, and mercury, along with flame retardant chemicals that can accumulate in the body and potentially cause reproductive and neurological harm.

In the face of those concerns, some businesses are now promising to recycle your TV properly.

CNET News followed one aging analog TV as it headed to the next world, making its own transition from consumer electronics device to scrap metal and other parts. We met Mark Salvador as he was leaving his old Symphonic TV at a Waste Management site in San Leandro, Calif.

"The remote is not working, and the picture is not good. That is why we buy a new TV," Salvador said.

Salvador's TV set is transported from collector Waste Management to E-Recycling of California, in Hayward, south of Oakland. E-Recycling of California has pledged not to burn, dump, or export the waste, and for that reason it has received E-Stewards certification from the Basel Action Network, a watchdog group.

"We are actually dismantling it down into commodities...Everything's going at a commodity level on to be further recycled," Russ Caswell, manager at E-Recycling, explained. "A plastic-based television (is) 100 percent (recyclable). About the only thing on any television that doesn't always get totally recycled or reused would be a wooden case from an old console TV."

Ivan Tego of E-Recycling of California dismantles an analog TV. Erik Palm/CNET

So what can you do to avoid contributing to the wave of electronic waste from the digital transition?

First, Greenpeace says, consider whether you really need a new TV. A digital converter box, subsidized by the government, can keep your old TV alive a few more years. Alternatively, the TV could continue its useful life for a while longer if you donate it to a charitable organization--the Environmental Protection Agency lists a number that will take the devices.

If you do decide to recycle the old TV, first go to the TV manufacturer's Web site for recycling information. (PC makers and retailers also offer recycling programs.) If you head to a recycling facility, make sure that the recycler has E-Stewards certification.

More information on recycling from EPA can be found here.