09/26/2013 04:29 EDT | Updated 11/26/2013 05:12 EST

Solving the CRT Recycling Problem

Recently, nine million pounds of cathode ray tubes (CRT) were found abandoned in Yuma, Arizona. Similar reports are becoming more common as the market for recycling CRT glass becomes more stressed. CRTs, which used to be a standard feature in TV screens and computer monitors, contain high amounts of lead, and recycling them is costly, posing significant environmental risks. But as we've seen so often in the electronics industry, with challenges also come opportunities and we are moving in the right direction to develop safe, affordable, innovative solutions that encourage progress and protect the environment.

To protect consumers from internal X-ray emissions, CRTs typically contained several pounds of lead bound tightly into the tube glass -- an unusual type of glass that makes recycling a challenge. In recent years, demand for CRTs has dropped drastically as newer LCD, LED and plasma technologies -- which are more compact and use less energy -- have become more affordable and widely available.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that CRTs made up nearly half of U.S. e-waste in 2009. And a study published in Recycling Today estimates that nearly 800 million pounds of CRTs will be scrapped annually during the coming decade -- far exceeding the 250 million pounds of existing CRT processing capacity.

This growing problem has led various industry leaders and innovators to seek workable solutions. My organization, the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, along with the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. (ISRI)® and InnoCentive recently held the second CRT Challenge - a technical crowdsourcing competition to identify innovative ways to recycle CRTs.

We received more than 100 entries. The winner, Dr. Thomas Engelhardt, a senior executive advisor to a major international investment fund with a doctoral degree in physical chemistry, has developed a proposal for using recycled CRT glass in the vitrification of nuclear waste. Disposing of these radioactive wastes has been a long-standing problem for the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). Dr. Engelhardt's solution attacks both the CRT and radioactive waste issues by integrating recycled CRT glass into the planned vitrification of nuclear waste. Leaded glass used to protect consumers from X-rays can also be used to protect people and the environment from radioactive wastes.

Dr. Engelhardt's idea is one of many innovative concepts for responsibly recycling CRT glass born from this competition. One of the winners from CEA's first CRT Challenge is NuLife Glass Processing Ltd, which proposed a solution that uses an extremely energy efficient electrically heated furnace to recycle glass. NuLife recently opened a CRT processing facility in New York that is expected to recycle 200 million pounds of CRT glass. At the recent E-Scrap Conference in Orlando, NuLife and a half dozen other entrepreneurs talked about their plans to process CRT glass and even use it in new products.

These are just a few examples highlighting the ingenuity of the private sector, and the way innovation can solve our biggest challenges. But it also points to the need for intelligent government policies to leverage developments in the private sector and avoid recreating the wheel.

The mind-blowing pace of change in the electronics industry over the last several decades has improved our lives in countless ways. While change almost always brings new challenges, it also presents new opportunities for innovators to apply their ingenuity to make life better for everyone.

Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA)®, the U.S. trade association representing more than 2,000 consumer electronics companies, and author of the New York Times best-selling booksNinja Innovation: The Ten Killer Strategies of the World's Most Successful Businesses and The Comeback: How Innovation Will Restore the American Dream. His views are his own. Connect with him on Twitter: @GaryShapiro.