LCD displays are a fixture in modern life, popping up in everything from pocket calculators and cell phones to widescreen televisions. However, as we already know, the liquid crystals they contain are not only potentially dangerous to humans, but also to our environment. Worst of all, most of the two million TV sets discarded each year end up in UK landfill sites, despite being accepted at many recycling centres across the country.
In this article we are answer a few most common questions:
- What parts of LCD and TVs are hazardous to the environment?
- What is the global cost of electronic waste?
- Can advanced technology help us avoid environmental contamination from throwing away millions of LCD screens every year?
Chemicals in LCD
Let’s start by looking deeply into the problem. LCD screens usually consist of two panes of glass with a thin layer of a sticky liquid crystal material between them. The material is a mixture of 15 to 20 different chemical compounds. Each pixel of an LCD display typically consists of a layer of molecules sandwiched between two transparent electrodes, often made of indium tin oxide (ITO) and two polarizing filters (parallel and perpendicular polarizers) whose transmission axes are (in most cases) perpendicular to each other.
Apart from that, LCD, TVs and monitors have a complex internal structure; consisting of housing, base, cables, liquid crystal panel and electronic components.
EU legislation currently prevents electronic material from being disposed of in landfills. The same directive states that mercury and liquid crystals must be disposed of, so it is important that they are handled appropriately. For this reason, TVs are now largely disassembled by hand, making the process slow and costly, resulting in the disposal of LCD screens at recycling facilities across Europe.
However, many countries lack laws and regulations regarding electronic waste. As a result, electronic devices are often disposed of in landfills. Even though Africa’s e-waste recycling rate is only 0.9 percent, many rich nations export their e-scrap there. This is becoming a growing problem, especially in Ghana, where one of the world’s largest electro-waste landfills is located. Electronics can be made of harmful substances such as mercury, arsenic and chromium. These toxic substances can leak into the environment if not properly managed, causing adverse effects on human health as well as environmental damage.
The global cost of electronic waste
Electronic waste – colloquially known as e-waste – is thrown away electronic devices that are no longer needed, no longer working or are obsolete. This can range from small electronic products like cell phones and lamps to large appliances like refrigerators. The rapid pace at which technology is developing today, as well as the growing consumer demand mean that many devices end their life after just a few years of use. Consequently, electronic waste is currently the fastest growing waste stream in the world.
In 2021, human beings discarded an estimated 57.4 million tonnes (approximately 63.3 million U.S. tons) of electronic waste. That waste outweighed the Great Wall of China, the world’s heaviest human construction… Most of them were manufactured in China, which is the world’s largest producer of e-waste. However, while Asia generates significantly more e-waste than other regions, on average it only produces 5.6 kilograms per person. For comparison, the amount of generated e-waste in Europe and the Americas is much higher amounting to 16.2 kg and 13.3 kg, respectively.
On top of that, according to estimates done by WEEE in Europe, where the problem is best studied, 11 of 72 electronic items in an average household are no longer in use or are broken. Annually per citizen, another 4 to 5 kg of unused electrical and electronic products are hoarded prior to being discarded.
If nothing changes, the figure is set to reach 74 million tonnes (around 81.6 million tonnes) by 2030, meaning e-waste is growing by around three to four percent annually. And, ff you add all old, broken and unused TVs to it, the numbers are simply devastating. The cost of recycling is in the billions.
This is a major waste both financially and ecologically. Therefore, it is worth mentioning that recovering metals from electronic waste would not only burn less greenhouse gas emissions than extracting new materials, but would also reduce global recycling costs.
The new future of TV recycling
A very special partnership between scientists, recyclers and engineers has developed the ALR3000TM machine, which processes 60 LCD screens per hour and is modular for scalability.
This full-scale commercial unit was developed as part of a three-year eco-innovation project called ReVolv, by a consortium led by Votechnik, one of the pioneers of tv recycling solutions, and the University of Limerick. The technology is an alternative to current mechanical and manual TV recycling processes.
So, while EU legislation previously made manual disassembly the only solution, bringing the ALR3000TM to the international market is expected to change this and make LCD recycling profitable, and much faster. It will also cut down the number of people involved in this very dangerous process.
The ALR3000TM machine quickly and safely removes components containing hazardous substances from LCD displays, such as mercury-containing lamps, and presents separate fractions of non-hazardous materials ready for recycling.
These materials include the desired critical raw materials such as indium and other valuable, reusable components such as plastics contained in screens.
ReVolv has developed all the necessary technical manuals and specifications for the handling and production of the ALR3000TM. Based on user requirements and a thorough analysis of the market, legal framework and environmental impact, a business and operation plan have been developed.
Discussing the end of project results, Project Leader Dr. Lisa O’Donoghue said, “This new technology has been the result of three years of focussed work and collaboration. The machine has been thoroughly tested during this development phase and has been found to perform extremely well in all conditions.”
The technology is currently being demonstrated in Ireland and is available for tv recyclers and potential customers to see in action.