Recycling Mystery: Flat-Screen TVs

You’re ready to spring for a brand-new television, and now you’re faced with a problem. What do you do with your old flat-screen TV, whether it is based on LED, plasma, or LCD technology?

If it still works, the best option is to pass it along to someone who can use it. But if it is beyond repair, sending that giant TV to the landfill is not a good idea. TV screens and monitors contain chemicals and heavy metals that can contaminate soil and water. Plasma screens may be contain lead and the latest LCD screens still use small amounts of mercury — and lots of plastic encases all but the latest OLED TVs, which contain about 1/12th as much plastic as their predecessors.

Instead, recycling that old television is the right path to take. Let’s take a peek at some avenues for responsibly recycling your television. Read on to find out which option is best for you.

The Trouble with Trashing TVs

Worldwide, we humans generate over 63 million tons of e-waste every year. The UN Environment Program reports that only 17% of that waste is formally recycled. Unrecycled e-waste usually ends up in landfills or incinerators. Sometimes it ends up in developing countries that lack the facilities to handle these materials safely, endangering workers and the environment.

According to All Green Recycling, plasma TVs are one of the most frequently disposed consumer electronics items, but as newer technologies appear, they too are heading to landfills. Plasma, LED and LCD TVs contain heavy metals such as cadmium, mercury, lead, and copper, which are health risks to both humans and the environment.

In addition to the health risks, when we throw an old TV in the trash, we waste natural resources. Televisions house some valuable materials. It’s estimated that one ton of e-waste contains 100 times more gold than one ton of gold ore. (Anyone else wonder why we continue mining for gold if it’s just sitting in our landfills?)

Obstacles to Recycling TVs

We wish we could say that you can put your television out with your curbside recycling and call it a day. It’s not that simple.

Several obstacles make recycling LED and plasma televisions difficult:

  • Availability of electronic recycling facilities
  • Health and safety issues of e-waste recycling
  • Cost of recycling televisions
  • Transporting televisions/accessibility for consumers

Despite the rise of e-waste legislation requiring that TVs be recycled in half of the United States, consumers still have to do some leg work to get past these obstacles. Some retailers and manufacturers offer solutions that make it easier, thanks, in part, to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The EPA Challenge to Electronics Manufacturers and Retailers

Back in 2012, the EPA issued a challenge to electronics manufacturers, brand owners, and retailers. The Sustainable Materials Management (SMM) Electronics Challenge encouraged these entities to:

  • Increase their rates of recovering used electronics from consumers, businesses, and their own companies.
  • Send 100% of their used electronics to third-party certified e-waste recyclers.
  • Share their recycling data with the public.

Many companies took up the challenge, including:

LG, which offers a limited number of drop-off locations.
Samsung, which provides drop-off and a take-back program.
Sony partners with EIR Direct to provide a limited national network of drop-off locations.
Panasonic, which directs you to a variety of state recycling information sites in a confusing experience.
Hisense partners with MRM Recycling to provide a few drop-off options.
Vizio also partners with EIR Direct on a small network of drop-off locations.
Toshiba points visitors to its TV recycling page to MRM Recycling, which has a small number of drop-off sites.

In the Hall of Shame, Philips talks on its recycling page about the circular economy, but offers no link to actually recycle its products.

Finding a Retail Location That Accepts Flat Screen TVs as Trade-Ins or for Recycling

Some retailers will take your old TV for recycling when you purchase a new one, though there is often a fee. For example, Best Buy charges $29.99 for this service.

Do Curbside Recyclers Take Plasma, LED, or LCD TVs?

Curbside recycling programs, in most cases, accept paper, plastics, metals, and glass, but not electronics. Electronics recycling requires specialized equipment and safety precautions that curbside recyclers just don’t have.

Some curbside recyclers or municipalities may accept your TV for a fee. They will pick up and send your TV to an electronics recycler. Expect to pay somewhere between $25 and $40 depending on the size of your television.

Another option is to wait for an e-recycling event nearby. These are often hosted by local departments of public works, boards of health, or as fundraisers for community organizations.

Work With E-cyclers That Ethically Recycle Electronics

As if the whole process isn’t difficult enough, we do have a word of caution when attempting to have your television recycled properly.

Much of the e-waste in the U.S (and other developed countries) gets exported to developing countries. There, e-waste recycling workers are exposed to unsafe materials and practices that negatively affect their health. Unsafe recycling practices impact the local environment as well.

Fortunately, you can find reputable electronics recycling facilities by looking for one of two certifications. The EPA recommends that e-waste recyclers get certified through the Responsible Recycling (R2) Standard for Electronics Recyclers or the e-stewards standard. E-waste recyclers with these certifications commit to refurbishing electronics, if possible, and to using methods that safely and efficiently recycle electronic components for reuse.

Recycling E-waste Isn’t Easy, But It’s Worth the Effort

It’s not a simple task to recycle your old flat screen TV responsibly. But, when you care about environmental and human health and not wasting resources, it’s an easy decision.

Editor’s Note:  This article was updated in February 2024.