The swift replacement of CRT screens with flat panels created tons of extremely toxic e-waste, with dangerous tubes and leaded glass posing unique environmental and safety hazards for disposal workers and sites.
Startups like Closed Loop Refining and Recycling aimed to capitalize on these problems, charging recycling centers every time they took in one of the 705 million CRTs sold in America after 1980, and warehousing them against the day they figured out how to safely dismantle them. After playing a years-long shell game with environmental regulators -- engaging in shenanigans like moving tubes from one warehouse to another to evade rules requiring waste to be disposed of within a year -- the company went bust, leaving warehouses full of super-toxic, lead-leaching e-waste that the taxpayers will have to deal with.
Closed Loop used off-the-books facilities to house the sets, leaving regulators and bankruptcy trustees with the challenge of simply knowing where the future problems will be.
It's not alone, either: other recyclers (or "recyclers") like Creative Recycling went through the same cycle, abandoning tons of toxic waste when they ran out of money.
It appears that the recyclers began in good faith, but quickly realized that they had been too optimistic in their projections of the costs of disassembling and disposing of old TVs.
Not knowing when to call it quits is a problem that almost certainly happened at Closed Loop. Last year, co-founder Brent Benham told the trade publication E-Scrap News that a $16 million loan—part of which would have been used to build the furnace—fell through, but the company has never said how it spent all the money it made from taking in CRTs.
Closed Loop announced it would be shutting down in May 2016, but as late as March of that year, the Ohio EPA found that the company was still "bringing in approximately two truckloads a day of CRTs" from upstream recyclers, according to an inspection report by the agency's hazardous-waste expert Andy Maneff. Closed Loop did eventually begin sending a small amount of its glass—about 1.4 million pounds—to overseas CRT recyclers, which is a half percent of the estimated total amount of glass it took in.
Millions of televisions at Closed Loop and other warehouses around the country still must be safely disposed of, somehow
That companies were still willingly paying Closed Loop to take their unwanted CRTs speaks to the desperation many recyclers have to wash their hands of the responsibility of recycling them. The situation is further complicated because many of Closed Loop's customers were companies that participated in state-run recycling programs, meaning Closed Loop took taxpayer money to not recycle your old TV.
"Some of the glass from Creative [Recycling] went to a company in Kentucky called Global Environmental Services, then ended up at Closed Loop. Now someone has to take it from there," Keogh said. "By the time it's all done, it will have been paid for four times, which is pretty cool for a commodity that has no frickin' value."
Everyone I spoke to came to the same conclusion. Whether Cauchi and Benham (the two declined through their lawyer to talk to me for this story) intended to rip people off is irrelevant, because the result is the same either way: Millions of televisions at Closed Loop and other warehouses around the country still must be safely disposed of, somehow.
America's Television Graveyards [Jason Koebler/Motherboard]