As TV makers continue their march toward an all flat-panel future, they’re leaving a growing pile of toxic trash in their wake. With more households upgrading to sleek thin panel TVs, consumers are trashing their old tube-based models as quick as they can. The problem is, these old sets are packed with up to eight pounds of lead. Bound into the screen glass and onto circuit boards, the lead can taint ground water when the old sets are crushed in landfills.

And the flow of tube TVs into garbage dumps is set to spike this year, says Barbara Kyle, national coordinator of the Electronics Take Back Coalition, as the clock counts down to Feb. 17, 2009, the date when analog TV broadcasts will be shut off forever, replaced with digital signals.

While the switchover doesn’t require consumers to buy a new set — converter boxes are available at subsidized prices — Kyle believes folks who have been putting off buying a new TV may be prodded into action by the deadline. Some 32 million new TVs are expected to be purchased in the US this year. Kyle hopes that Philips, Sharp, Panasonic and other top brands will follow Sony’s lead and set up take back and recycling programs in the U.S. “When manufacturers take responsibility for handling their waste,” she says, “they change the way the design new products, so that recyclable materials and toxins can be more economically recovered.”

The sooner the better. Though thin-panel TVs are practically lead-free, most LCDs carry a substantial dose of mercury, an even more toxic compound. Not long ago, Panasonic claimed its plasma flat panels were superior to LCDs because plasma are “lead and mercury free” (see point 5, below). Now, if only Panasonic would take a similarly virtuous sense of responsibility for the millions of old tubes sets it sold too.

What should you do with an old TV? If you have the room, keep it in the basement and wait a while. Change is afoot on this issue, with more cities and states mandating take back rules. A proliferation of local rules is likely to stir the manufacturers to push for a single national standard. If you don’t have the room, check out e-waste recyclers who will accept old TVs (not always for free). And if you were lucky enough to have bought a Sony, here are details for the Sony take back progam .

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