January 2008

Unintended effects of the digital-TV switchover

By David Grant Long

Out with the old, in with the new.

That adage will have special meaning to TV viewers early next year.

Many older sets will literally be thrown out in advance of new federal regulations that will end the broadcasting of analogue signals, the only kind those sets can receive without adding a conversion box, and be replaced with sets capable of receiving digital signals.

The Federal Communications Commission has set Feb. 17, 2009, as the cut-off date for full-strength broadcasters to end their transmission of analogue signals.

And this expected mass upgrade of TVs will only exacerbate what is already a growing problem for landfills across the country, where much of such electronic waste ends up once its useful life is over.

Montezuma County Landfill Director Deb Barton told the county commissioners at their meeting Dec. 10 that 1 of every 4 American households is expected to dispose of a television set as a result of the switch to digital, over a period of about six months.

“Older TVs cannot receive the digital signal without a box,” Barton said, “so many people will just throw them away.”

With TVs weighing about 70 pounds each, this would result in 240 tons of television sets in six months at the county landfill.

Older TVs contain lead, cadmium, arsenic and other toxic elements, Barton said. “With electronic waste you are looking at potential toxins and acids that will leach into groundwater,” she said.

Barton told the Free Press the estimate, which she developed using numbers provided to her at a waste management conference, included TVs for a population of 27,678, which includes Montezuma and Dolores counties and the surrounding areas that use the local landfill.

Barton said the cost to local residents for disposing of those TVs, at 25 cents per pound, would amount to about $121,000. Television sets and computer monitors used in homes do not have to be recycled or disposed of separately as hazardous waste, although since 2002 those same TVs and monitors, if utilized by businesses or institutions, are considered hazardous waste.

“There is no law that says you can’t throw it away if you’re residential,” she said, “but if you want to keep it out of the landfill, there are some costs involved.”

In the Durango disposal area, which includes La Plata, Archuleta and San Juan counties, “they’re looking at 535 tons of TVs,” in the six-month period after the law takes effect, Barton said. The total cost to residents would be $266,437.

A better form of broadcasting

Already, just about all TVs sold are digital receivers, which have several advantages over analogue sets, explained Wayne Johnson, manager of the Southwest Colorado Television Translator Association, which provides free overthe air signals of more than 20 channels to about 3,000 households in Montezuma County. The district is supported by a modest property-tax mill levy that is used to maintain and upgrade the equipment.

“I think [the transition] is going to be pretty confusing for a while,” Johnson said.

“We will convert to digital,” he said, “but it's going to be a slower conversion for translators [because] they are not going to be mandated by that Feb. 17, 2009, date — but that will eventually change because the FCC does want translators to switch.

“One of the reasons the FCC is doing this is [digital] is a much better form of broadcasting — the picture is very, very good and you can get extra services with it,” he said.

For example, the PBS station out of Utah has three different feeds where the single feed was before, he said, “so they're able to do multicasting — one PBS feed could have a cooking show, another an outdoor show and the third a Spanish show, so you can get more services in there and the quality is a lot better.

The conversion also frees up some portions of the bandwidth for other purposes, such as better public-safety communications and even direct satellite Internet service, he explained.

He said Fone Net, a local Internet provider based in Dove Creek, purchased two such portions of the bandwidth at a government auction several years ago and are now providing high-speed Internet through them.

“And they're doing a very good job at it,” he said.

“I think people are becoming more aware of [the impending change],” Johnson said. “There's going to be a strong push nationwide in 2008 to make people aware that full-power broadcasters are going to be going digital and that they have to turn off their analogue Feb. 17, 2009.

“But we're prepared to go into the digital — in fact we are encoding some of our signals digitally right now and putting them out so those people who have a digital TV can go ahead and start watching it — so we're going to be doing both for a while.”

Three or four of the 20-some SCTTA signals should be converted to digital by next summer, and the translator district has been saving money to make the switches for the past decade, he said.

The district will be switching to standard- definition digital signals when it encodes, rather than the more costly high-definition signal, because the signal the translator receives from satellite will still be standard-definition or analogue, which can't be converted to high-definition at any rate.

Still, the conversion will cost roughly $50,000 per channel, Johnson said.

Won’t fade away

Digital TVs are actually a “marriage” of a TV and a computer, he explained, much like cell phones, whose signals were once analogue, but are now all digital, and “that conversion went really, really well.”

Digital TV signals do not fade, or become weaker over distance, so the reception is of high quality anywhere within the broadcast range. (Or, of course, you get no signal at all once outside the range — no snowy ghostlike images with static-laced sound, just dead air.)

The end of analogue broadcasts will not affect viewers who get their programming through cable or satellite signals, so these viewers will notice no impact at all, according to Johnson.

“So it's pretty much just over-the-air transmissions,” he said, and those viewers will still have a choice of hooking up a converter box to their analogue sets rather than buying new sets.

People who invested in large-screen analogue TVs in the past few years may well choose to just get a box, since the picture will be of the same high quality.

A government-sponsored web site — www.dtv.gov/consumercorner — backs this up, stating that “Cable and satellite TV subcribers with analog TVs hooked up to their cable or satellite service should not be affected by the Feb. 17, 2009, cut-off date for fullpower analog broadcasting.”

However, the picture quality of an analogue set receiving digital signals will not be as sharp as sets with builtin digital receivers, according to the web site: “If you have an analog television set, then you are probably not getting digital, even though the reception may be somewhat improved,” it says, suggesting you contact the subscription service to see what devices you would need for improved programming.

And there's a real possibility cable channels may soon elect to end their analogue broadcasting packages entirely, or offer more expensive analogue programming to encourage viewers to subscribe to a “basic” digital package.

Cheaper to toss out

Television is such a pervasive part of our culture that the government is concerned that people might be forced to do without it if they can’t afford to convert to digital.

Thus, the federal government has created a program under which households can receive up to two $40 coupons toward the purchase of the converter boxes, which are expected to cost around $65.

“I'm impressed the government is doing this,” Johnson said. “They're bending over backwards to help people.” But Johnson agreed that the digital conversion will add to the glut of outmoded electronics sent to landfills.

“Everybody I've talked to who has gotten a digital TV, they really like it,” Johnson said. “They're pleased with the picture, and electronics — let's face it — aren't made like they used to be,” with TVs, VCRs and DVD players being made so cheaply it often makes more sense to discard them and buy a new one rather than getting them fixed.

“A VCR — if it breaks — how can you afford to spend three hours and pay somebody to fix it?” he said. “It's cheaper just to buy another one for $60.

“With the government-mandated program, I think the landfills are going to feel the brunt of it and there needs to be more programs out there to help recycle the components of those things.”

Toxic elements

Color TVs contain significant amounts of lead and other hazardous materials. “All those TVs [expected to be thrown away at the local landfill as a result of the digital switchover] would have 15 tons of lead,” Barton told the Free Press.

“Basically, 71 tons of the 242 tons are things that are probably not the best in the world,” she said.

According to the Canadian Broadcasting Company's In Depth Science website, both TVs and cathode-ray computer monitors contain about a kilogram (more than two pounds) of toxic waste, such as hexavalent chromium, which causes neurological disorders, as well as toxic phosphor and barium.

More modern liquid-crystal displays contain phosphor and mercury, and keyboards contain toxic flame-retardants and antimony, another poisonous heavy metal. And all of this stuff is encased in plastics that produce more deadly waste when burned.

The Montezuma County landfill has special recycling days in April and November when residents, if they choose, can recycle electronic waste. The cost for disposing of a computer monitor or a television up to 27 inches in size is $15; bigger sets cost $25.

Otherwise, at the Montezuma County landfill, TVs and other e-waste are charged for just like all other trash hauled there by individuals, by weight, then baled and placed in cells along with other types of trash. An employee of the city of Cortez's trash-collection operation said they will collect TVs along with the other garbage, but usually nothing over 19-inch sets.

Durango’s Bondad landfill is privately owned, but the city of Durango and La Plata County cooperate on recycling electronic waste, kicking in $100,000 apiece each year to have a household hazardous-waste disposal day.

“We don’t have the tax base to do that,” Barton said. “We do little things to help people.”

Durango also has its own recycling program, and contracts with an Oklahoma company to haul off and salvage old electronics that are collected on the twice-yearly clean-up days, according to Jill Quam of the Public Works Department.

Residents are otherwise discouraged from discarding old TVs and other socalled “e-waste” along with their regular trash.

A spokewoman for La Plata County's private trash-collection service, Transit Waste, said there is a $65 fee for picking up old TVs, computers and other electronics left out with the regular trash. She wasn't sure where such waste goes after it is picked up. An employee of the privately owned Bondad landfill said they simply do not accept such waste.

The Waste Management transfer station near Durango levies an appliancedisposal charge of $8.40 a cubic yard, an employee said, regardless of what the appliance is, and doesn't recycle old electronics.

‘Horrific conditions’

But even if e-waste is recycled, there is doubt in some quarters that it is actually disposed of in safe ways.

The Computer Take Back Campaign, which works for more responsible recycling, says about 400 million units of TVs. computers and other e-waste items are scrapped each year, and that they are the fastest-growing portion of the waste stream, growing by 8 percent from 2004 to 2005, even while the amount of the overall municipal waste stream was declining. And it also points to the increase that will be sparked by the digital mandate.

According to this organization, the EPA estimates 2.6 million tons of ewaste was generated in 2005, of which 87.5 percent ended up in landfills and 12.5 percent was supposedly recycled. But recycling can mean a lot of different things.

“Some discarded equipment is handled by firms that operate under strict environmental controls and high worker safety protections,” states the Computer Take Back Campaign on its web site, “but many other firms do not operate under strict controls or act responsibly,” simply removing the valuable metals and sending the rest to landfills or incinerators, where workers can be exposed to many toxic chemical compounds.

Also, much e-waste is exported to countries such as China and Mexico, where they are dismantled under “horrific conditions” that poison the people, land and air, the web site says.

“Local governments, private agencies and individual consumers have been handed the most responsibility for responding to the e-waste crisis, but have the least power to compel manufacturers to do anything about it,” the campaign points out. “Brand owners and manufacturers in the U.S. have dodged their responsibility for management of products at the end of their useful life, and public policy has failed to promote producer take-back, clean design and clean production.

“Taxpayers are paying dearly for the consequences of manufacturing choices they did not make and over which they have little control.”

So the unintended consequences of American consumers getting better TV signals may be more garbage in landfills, as well as more woes for Third World workers.