Leading the Way To Clean CRT Recycling

Speaking with WMW in early 2012, Simon Greer, founder of Nulife Glass and inventor of its proprietary furnace which extracts lead from CRT glass, was keen to explain the scale of the problem.

With almost no outlets for leaded CRT glass hundreds of thousands of tonnes is ebing accumulated in warehouses across the U.S.
Credit: Basal Action Network

Back in 2012 WMW took a look at Nulife Glass's award winning new CRT glass recycling technology. At the time it was in the development stage, with commercial role out potentially just around the corner. The past 18 months have been fruitful for the company, with deployment of its first commercial furnace at an e-waste recycling facility in Kent, UK and the development of its own facility in Buffalo, New York well underway. More Waste Management World Articles

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by Ben Messenger

Speaking with WMW in early 2012, Simon Greer, founder of Nulife Glass and inventor of its proprietary furnace which extracts lead from CRT glass, was keen to explain the scale of the problem. With almost no CRT manufacturers left to turn glass from end-of-life screens back into new televisions and monitors, and huge volumes of obsolete units entering the waste stream, around the world the hazardous leaded glass was piling up. Since then? It's got worse.

In September this year, environmental organisation Basel Action Network (BAN) teamed up with CBS News in California to expose a fraudulent CRT recycling operation. The report showed the company had been shipping glass from end-of-life Cathode Ray Tube (CRT) screens in California and dumping it in warehouses in Yuma, Arizona.

According to BAN, the scam had seen Dow Management paid more than $581,000 dollars by California Recyclers to take the glass, which was in turn paid $3.6 million dollars from a California legislated recycling fund.

In California, state law stipulates that when consumers purchase a new TV or computer screen they pay an 'Advanced Recovery Fee'. This is then paid to designated recyclers to have the material properly processed. With recyclers able to collect around 39 cents per pound from the State of California, the large quantities and heavy nature of CRT glass means that the amounts of money involved can be large.

However, the speculative accumulation of CRT glass for recycling for longer than one year is outlawed under U.S. federal law. In this case neither the California law nor the federal law were followed and regulators failed to enforce the rules, according to BAN.

The BAN investigation uncovered three warehouses in Yuma, Arizona holding what is believed to be over 9 million pounds (4100 tonnes) of abandoned toxic tubes from old TVs and computer monitors originally collected by the California state Recycling Program.

The CRT glass had been shipped to Dow Management, a company claiming to be a legitimate recycler, which BAN says in fact did little processing and simply took the money and stockpiled the material. BAN adds that DOW and its principals have since disappeared.

With huge quantities of CRT glass already in the waste stream, and more set to arrive over the coming years, it's a situation that the organisation says is becoming all too common across the U.S., with similar incidents reported in Baltimore and Denver.

According to a Transparent Planet report published late last year, some 300,000 tonnes of CRT glass has been stockpiled in the U.S.

"There are a lot of companies which have been taking glass in because traditionally they used to have an outlet. But now they haven't. And they've gone bust in quite a spectacular way leaving behind piles of glass," comments Greer.

While never a cheap material to handle, in the early years of this century recyclers could reportedly charge as much as $200 per tonne to CRT manufacturers wanting to recycle it back into new screens. Smelters meanwhile would accept leaded glass at a nominal cost for use as a flux. In March this year a draft report from CalRecycle noted that the sole new CRT manufacturing facility still accepting processed glass from the West is a Videocon facility located in India - it charges between $100 and $200 per tonne to do so.

Big problem - big opportunities

It is estimated that in addition to the 300,000 tonnes of CRT glass stockpiled in the U.S., there is also some 232 million CRT screens weighing 6.9 million tons (6.26 million tonnes) yet to enter the waste stream - most of which are expected to do so over the next 10 years. Looking to capitalise on the vast stockpiles of CRT glass, as well as the significant volume yet to enter the waste stream is Nulife Glass.

Nulife's facility in New York State is now accepting CRT glass ahead of going live in a few months time

Following on from the successful commissioning in the UK of what it says is the most advanced CRT recycling plant in the world, the company has now formed a U.S. corporation and plans to open multiple new facilities with sufficient CRT glass recycling furnace capacity to support e-waste recyclers. To that end, the company recently opened a facility 40 miles southwest of Buffalo, New York State.

"We've opened the doors and we've now concluded the crushing equipment that's going to go into that building. We're taking glass in now," explains Greer.

"We're very happy with the work we've done on the furnace in Kent. It was doing its 10 tonnes a day. It was dragging the lead out just as we wanted it to - it was great. And on that basis we've gone to a capital financing organisation and we're just in the throes of finishing off the proposals with them, which is to open six or seven sites within the next year," he continues.

Greer envisions three of those being in the U.S., one in Australia or New Zealand and the remainder in Europe. In New Zealand the company's been in dialogue with the environment minister. According to Greer the country doesn't have the population to support a furnace, but its domestic glass could be supplemented with glass from Australia, which is currently looking to ship CRT glass to the UK.

"I'm trying to discourage them from shipping because it's just crazy, but I'm saying look, if you can keep hold of it we'll get out to New Zealand and do it there. We're probably not going to do it in Australia because the legislation is just a stranglehold. If we open in New Zealand we can start addressing the other stuff from the Pacific Rim as well," elaborates Greer.

"To do all of the United States' glass we'd probably need around 50 furnaces. If we were just doing 10% of that it would be a great business, but it wouldn't be enough because there isn't enough capacity from anyone else," he adds.

Securing contracts

With e-waste recyclers swimming in CRT glass at the moment, securing feedstock supply contracts must surely be easy. But according to Greer, while capacity at the New York facility is now fully accounted for over the lifetime of the furnace, there's a mood among some recyclers that they'd rather wait until the plant is built.

"There's a couple of companies in the United States who've claimed that they're going to put furnaces in, but they've never issued any information about what it is that they're going to do. Never issued any data or anything like that. We have," he says.

In terms of siting the New York facility, Greer explains that Nulife won a deal with the New York Power Authority to get low cost power from Niagara Falls.

While some of the equipment has already been installed at the site, and leaded CRT glass is arriving in anticipation of the facility's commissioning, there are still some hoops to jump through, notably permitting.

Technology developments

It's not just in financing, planning and permitting where Greer's been busy. In the 18 months since WMW first reported on the technology, there have been developments to the furnace design.

"From the pilot in Manchester there were probably in excess of a hundred changes to the one we built in Kent for SWEEEP. And we're actually making a few changes to the one in SWEEEP at the moment to make for a bit more efficiency in the melt. We're putting some extra heaters in it because it's a long life of ten years," explains Greer.

"For the New York facility I think we've got 34 changes from the SWEEEP furnace already marked up. We're making some design changes to the forehearth, where the glass comes out, to assist us in better control of the temperature of the output glass. The reason we want to do that is to suit glass making machines that are put on the end of the furnace. On the one at SWEEEP we were dumping it into water and making it into an aggregate, but this is being modified and improved too," he adds.

According to Greer, while the output glass is very dark, the modifications will allow it to be used in products such as glass pebbles.

The Future

Nulife Glass may be a small company, but it has big ambitions and it's made huge strides towards realising those over the past 18 months. With one furnace already installed in the UK, and another facility months from opening in New York, the company seems to be delivering on its claims. Yet the scale of the problem is huge.

"We've got to hit some capacity - quickly," says Greer. "In 15 years' time there won't be any televisions left, so if we don't open the facilities fast then we won't capture that glass, it will end up in some kind of landfill. We're going to have to do a lot more. The risk to our business is a change in the law. For example, if someone were to say this is just too difficult - landfill it."

If more situations such as those seen recently in Yuma are to be avoided, it's clear that there will need to be a widely accessible final solution for leaded CRT glass.

"We do have a solution," concludes Greer. "We've shown it to the world. Serious players have been to the site and seen it working."

The progress made by Nulife in rolling out its first commercial facilities is impressive. But with millions of tonnes of glass to process globally over the next 10 to 15 years, the company's ability to accelerate that roll out will be crucial.

Ben Messenger is managing editor of WMW