Change is Good, Unless It Ends Up in the Atlantic
Change is Good, Unless It Ends Up in the Atlantic
By John Thomas
October 13, 2023
A decade ago, the “Analog Sunset,” was adopted by manufacturers, and digital AV technology “officially” replaced analog systems. Wide screen TVs began to replace the old (almost) square tubes – then LCD’s replaced CRT’s. HDMI connections eliminated separate audio and video cables. Signals became encrypted to protect content, and Internet protocol changed how we distributed programs, all of which took new technology and equipment. Everything had to be redesigned and manufactured to digital standards.
So, what happened to all those millions of analog monitors, connectors, cables, DA’s, power supplies, amps, and mixers? In 2019 alone, global electronic waste exceeded 59 million metric tons – and by 2030, it is projected to reach 90 million. How much of that is from the commercial AV industry? We don’t know. Our profession compiles no records for the disposal of obsolete commercial AV technology.
The commercial audio-visual business relies on technology obsolescence and replacement for a large part of its revenue, which results in a substantial volume of discarded, end-of-life products. Research shows a direct relationship between the replacement of outdated electronics and the amount of e-waste it generates. In a review of commercial AV standards, there are no industry recommendations or practices concerning AV electronics disposal or recycling, nor guidance by manufacturers for responsible disposal of their products.
It's not just us
Commercial AV electronic waste is one ingredient in the stew of millions of other obsolete electronic components. Less than 20% of all global e-waste was documented to be collected and properly recycled. We have no idea where the remaining 80 percent went, though it is suspected that a lot of it was dumped or sent overseas.
Despite international laws, unethical recyclers ship tons of e-waste to developing countries where unskilled workers melt circuit boards, soak microchips in acid, and burn plastics to retrieve precious metals. The impact on soil, air, water and the health of the workers and their communities is devastating. Burning insulated wire to retrieve its copper releases up to 100 times more cancer-causing dioxins than other waste and makes its way to the water supply, marine environments, agricultural land and ultimately, the food chain.
Over the last ten years, the transition from analog distribution to digital and wireless network protocols required the removal and replacement of thousands of miles of analog and low-bandwidth category cabling, almost all of which is sheathed in PVC. According to the Center for Biological Diversity, PVC is considered hazardous and toxic if leached in the soil or waterways.
Surprisingly, many AV manufacturers unwittingly contribute to this problem with every new product. For many, it is common to assemble their products in one location for international distribution. To reduce their handling cost, manufacturers will typically include power adapters for every world electrical standard -- but the customer uses one and throws away the others. If a hundred thousand of these products are sold worldwide, there can be three to four hundred thousand unneeded PVC-coated adapters that become toxic waste in landfills, and manufacturers have no program to take them back.
Industry colleagues have shared the challenges of discarding these, as well as unneeded or outdated AV equipment that was removed from customer locations, as there are very few recyclers who can responsibly dispose of these components. It can also be costly if there is no remarket value. I was told by the owner of a Midwest regional “e-recycling” facility that “…used AV equipment is worthless. Nobody recycles that stuff. We send it out to get shredded.”
AV contractors have shown me pallets and shelves filled with outdated, but mostly re-usable, electronics that they removed from customer sites, with no ethical means of disposing of it. I have also seen universities store dozens of old CRT monitors, projectors and flat panels, because it is too expensive to have them responsibly discarded. Consider the number of projects in one year where the industry replaces or upgrades existing equipment, not just in universities, but corporations, healthcare facilities, and K-12 schools.
Without best practices or industry standards for disposal, the electronics that we discard join the millions of tons of other e-waste shipped in containers to countries where there is no oversight of how it is discarded. There is no training or education for employees on how to handle outdated electronics because the AV industry maintains no standards or practices for the disposal of e-waste.
But we CAN make a difference
We can change this by acknowledging the situation and begin a discussion with colleagues, customers, manufacturers, and vendors. Here are suggestions to change the way we build sustainability in our industry, starting with your organization – and I would love to hear your ideas, as well.
- Establish internal Best Practices concerning the accountable and ethical disposal of electronic waste.
- Develop bid specifications that assign responsibility in projects for discarding outdated electronics.
- Host a training program for your staff and vendors on the toxicity and impact of e-waste.
- Request that AV manufacturers eliminate unnecessary components (like multiple power supplies) and identify elements in their core products that require special disposal methods.
- Collaborate with other institutions, your vendors and consultants to identify and recruit the services of responsible e-waste recycling/disposal companies in your local market.
I look forward to your comments, and hope you agree that it is time to clean up our act.
About the Author:
After 45 years in the AV industry, John Thomas retired from Visitec in 2020 and joined Miami University’s Project Dragonfly Master’s Program to focus on Sustainability. As a board member of SAVe, he has been researching electronic waste disposal in his former industry to advocate for a set of Best Practices in relation to electronic waste. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
References used for this post are listed below:
Andrade, D. F., Romanelli, J. P., & Pereira-Filho, E. R. (2019). Past and emerging topics related to electronic waste management: Top countries, trends, and perspectives. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 26(17),
Gullett, B. K., Linak, W. P., Touati, A., Wasson, S. J., Gatica, S., & King, C. J. (2007). Characterization of air emissions and residual ash from open burning of electronic wastes during simulated rudimentary recycling operations. Journal of Material Cycles and Waste Management, 9(1), 69–79. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10163-006-0161-x
Provencher, J. F., Ammendolia, J., Rochman, C. M., & Mallory, M. L. (2019). Assessing plastic debris in aquatic food webs: What we know and don’t know about uptake and trophic transfer. Environmental Reviews, 27(3), 304–317. https://doi.org/10.1139/er-2018-0079