The Romeros' long relationship with their television ended on a gray, drizzly morning at the Cockeysville recycling center.
Dina Romero carried the small TV into a metal shipping container and placed it in a pile of other TVs destined for end-of-life dismantling in New Jersey. "My husband bought a plasma TV, so we don't need this one anymore," the Cockeysville resident said.
The 13-inch set had served the family well for 22 years, but its time had come - just as it will for millions of analog TVs as the United States moves into a new digital era.
With U.S. broadcasters slated to switch to all-digital transmissions on Feb. 17, 2009 - and millions of viewers already replacing their older sets with high-definition TVs - American consumers are creating what some critics see as an environmental disaster.
Will they bring old sets to responsible recycling centers as the Romeros did - or just toss them out? Environmentalists and TV makers disagree on the answer.
Environmental groups worry that millions of unwanted TVs and the toxic chemicals they contain could wind up in U.S. landfills or be shipped to poor countries to be disposed of improperly.
Those sets can contain lead, mercury, barium, cadmium and other dangerous substances.
"There is going to be a huge spike in the number of TVs going into the waste stream," said Barbara Kyle, national coordinator for the Electronics TakeBack Coalition, a nonprofit that encourages recycling of consumer electronics.
TV makers acknowledge that new digital sets are selling rapidly - they estimate that 36 percent of American homes will have one by year's end - but question whether consumers will toss out their old sets immediately.
"The purchase of a new television has little or no relationship to the disposal of an old TV," said Parker Brugge, senior director and environmental counsel for the Consumer Electronics Association.
All parties agree that it's hard to determine how many sets Americans will dispose of during the next few years.
But two forces threaten to push older sets into the grave: HDTVs are rapidly replacing analog sets in U.S. homes, and the FCC will require U.S. broadcasters to stop transmitting analog signals over the air in 2009.
Owners of TVs connected to cable, satellite or fiber-optic services don't have to worry in the short run - their providers will continue transmitting analog signals.
But 38 million U.S. households have at least one set that relies on over-the-air, analog transmissions, according to a report by the Government Accounting Office. About 21 million of those - 19 percent of total households - depend completely on over-the-air broadcasts that will disappear.
Owners of these sets will have to do something, or their screens will go blank. One possibility: buying a converter box that translates digital signals, at a cost of about $50 to $70. Another is switching to cable or satellite service, a major, continuing expense. The third is buying a new digital TV - HD or standard definition.
The federal government has set aside $1.5 billion for vouchers worth $40 each to help families purchase converters (with a limit of two per household). But no one knows how many will convert and how many will replace their sets, creating an orphan TV in the process.
"It used to be that people would just demote their old TVs to somewhere else in the house, but I don't think that's the case here," said Kyle.
"This new technology is driving a new waste stream."
As much as 2.2 million tons of electronic equipment entered the U.S. waste stream in 2005, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Only 3.5 million of the 24 million to 26 million TVs that went out of use that year were recycled, according to the EPA. The rest went into storage or were tossed into landfills or incinerators - despite the hazardous materials inside.
The glass cathode ray tubes and circuit boards in older TVs contain an average of 4 to 8 pounds of lead - a potent neurotoxin that can cause brain damage in children.
TV screens and tubes also contain other toxic substances such as barium and cadmium. TV wiring is often insulated with polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and flame retardents, which have been linked to illness in children.
To increase recycling, Kyle's group urges states to require manufacturers to take back and recycle a certain percentage of the electronics they sell.
Minnesota recently passed a law requiring manufacturers to recycle the equivalent of 60 percent of the weight of products they sell there each year, despite lobbying against the measure by TV manufacturers.
Eight other states, including Maryland, have passed legislation mandating electronics recycling - but each has taken its own approach.
Manufacturers prefer California's model, which charges consumers an advance recycling fee of up to $10 when they purchase a product.
"We feel that the responsibility for recycling should be shared," said Brugge. "Right now, the trend is to place the entire burden upon manufacturers."
Brugge also questioned whether the digital transition would result in more televisions going into the waste stream.
"We think a lot of consumers are going to opt to get a voucher for a converter," he said. "This notion that there is going to be an avalanche of TVs [thrown out] has to be prefaced on the idea that a lot of TVs aren't going to work, and that premise is not true."
With more states requiring manufacturers to recycle, however, Sony Electronics recently dropped out of the coalition of companies fighting such legislation.
In November, Sony agreed to adopt the Electronics Take-Back Coalition's standards for TV recycling and voluntarily set up 75 electronics collection sites across the country.
It has also agreed to use reputable recycling contractors who will not ship discarded TVs to countries with lax environmental and worker safety practices.
"A lot of recyclers just ship electronics to developing countries where they are disposed of inappropriately - burned in the open air or virtually dumped on the side of the road," Kyle said.
Maryland's recycling program, launched in 2001, originally required computer manufacturers to pay a yearly fee to finance recycling programs around the state. In October, the fee was extended to TV manufacturers.
Hilary Miller, administrator of the Maryland Department of the Environment program, said manufacturers paid $213,500 to the state in fiscal year 2007.
"It doesn't nearly cover our cost to run the program," she said.
She said new fees from TV manufacturers are expected to significantly increase the program's budget.
The state gave most of the money collected in 2007 to local governments to help them establish recycling centers for electronics. Besides the Cockeysville site, 15 other permanent recycling centers are operating in Maryland.
James Jones, field supervisor of the Cockeysville center, said residents have made increasing use of the center since it opened last fall.
He estimated that the county sends four containers filled with TVs and monitors for recycling each week.
"It's picking up," said Jones, standing next to the container where Dina Romero's TV sat with drizzle running down its faux-wood paneling.
"People bring in their TVs and say they work, but that Goodwill [Industries] didn't want them because they've got too many already."
By the numbers
64 million households get cable TV
22 million households get satellite TV
21 million households rely entirely on over-the-air analog broadcasts
36 percent of U.S. households will have HDTVs by year's end
24 million to 26 million TV sets went into disuse in 2005
3.5 million sets recycled
[Sources: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency; Government Accountability Office; Consumer Electronics Association]
Most Baltimore area jurisdictions will recycle TV sets. Here's a list of dropoff sites and information numbers.
Anne Arundel County: Glen Burnie, Millersville and Sudley Resource Centers, Millersville Landfill. Most open daily 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 410-222-7951.
Baltimore City: Quarantine Road Sanitary Landfill, Northwest Transfer Station, Western Sanitation Yard, Eastern Sanitation Yard, Bowleys Lane, Northwest Sanitation Yard. Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Call 410-396-8450.
Baltimore County: Baltimore County Resource Recovery Facility, Cockeysville, Warren Road, 1/4 mile west of York Road. Monday through Saturday, 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 410-887-2000.
Carroll County: Northern Landfill, Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Saturday, 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Call 410-386-2633.
Harford County: Harford Waste Disposal Center (Scarboro Landfill); Recycling for computer monitors, but no TV recycling. Television sets can be dropped off but are buried in landfill with other discards. Call 410-638-3417.
Howard County: Alpha Ridge Landfill, Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Call 410-313-7678.
Inside your TV
TV sets and computer monitors are safe when they're viewed under normal conditions in homes and offices. But when owners discard them, toxic materials inside can leak into the environment if the sets are not properly recycled. Here's what's inside: Lead: Sets with cathode ray tubes (CRTs) contain 4 to 8 pounds. Used in screens and soldered circuit boards. Can cause brain damage, blood disorders, kidney damage and birth defects. Children are particularly vulnerable. Mercury: Used in lamps of flat-screen liquid crystal displays (LCDs). High levels can contribute to brain and kidney damage, birth defects. Cadmium: Used in phosphor coating of CRT screens. A carcinogen that accumulates in the body and can cause kidney damage. Barium: Used inside CRTs. Short-term exposure can cause neurological problems and damage to heart, liver and spleen. BFRs: Brominated flame retardants are used in wiring. Can disrupt hormones and immune system, especially in children. PVC: Polyvinyl chloride insulates wires. Can emit toxic fumes when burned in incinerators and can leach out in landfills. Source: Electronics TakeBack Coalition