First world problem

Our story so far: My husband and I had spent months transforming a 126-year-old Methodist church into a home.

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Chapter 26

All the screen time Americans had been accumulating over the years has had a toxic impact not only on our attention spans but in our landfills.

We inherited—or bought, I guess—an old tube television when we acquired the old Methodist church. It sat in the basement in all its bloated 1980s glory, who knew if it worked anymore. We planned sleek flat-screen televisions in our new space, and even if the old TV worked, it didn’t work for us. I was reminded of a college art project in which we students removed the tube screens from old console televisions and created dioramas inside that made high-minded cultural statements of one sort of another. We recycled and learned something at the same time. Win-win.

That was 1987. The television landscape had changed in thirty years.

All the locations that accepted our old housewares like Goodwill and Restore wanted nothing to do with old electronics. Old televisions were as desirable as old cassette tapes. Ancient technology.

OK, so we’d recycle it. I did a little checking around.

Would the garbage man take it away? Nope.

How about the scrap metal yard where we’d hauled several truck loads of heating ducts, aluminum siding and copper-studded hunks of metal? We would leave there with enough jingle in our pockets for lunch. Alas, no. A big sign declared “No TVs.”

I recalled recycling a number of electronics in the past at Best Buy. Would the Big Box store take our TV?

Sure. For a price: Twenty-five dollars to recycle one old TV.


Old television sets are filled with toxic components like lead, mercury, flame retardants, cadmium, beryllium and other terms one hasn’t heard since eighth grade chemistry. The value of the good stuff—platinum, gold, silver and copper—doesn’t outweigh the trouble of responsibly getting rid of the bad. It’s a huge problem in a society where its citizens upgrade their computers and TVs more often than they observe leap year. Think about how many television sets you’ve owned in your lifetime. Where are they now? The landfill?

I wasn’t the only one struggling to dump a TV. Once I realized how difficult it was to get rid of an old TV, I began seeing them everywhere. One of our neighbors left eight—eight! I counted!—televisions and computer monitors on the curb for four months, through drifting snow and falling rain. We wrinkled our noses in disgust every time we drove by. Then we left for a getaway one weekend, and when we returned, they were gone.

old tvs
These old TVs were loved once. But no more.

Other folks in town had less obvious eyesores in their yards. A TV here, a couple there. Our rental house had a TV in the dungeonesque basement. I fantasized about playing the village TV fairy—taking all of them away and paying the reverse ransom to get rid of them.

Though troubled by the problem of excess and the resulting detritus, I was too cheap to play fairy.

We didn’t have the space to keep even one junk TV in the basement of the church, and we had too much pride to leave it sitting on the curb indefinitely. I sacrificed a lunch one day and ponied up the cash to let Best Buy take the dinosaur TV off our hands.

Part of me felt morally superior for getting rid of the old TV responsibly. And part of me felt guilty for coveting the flashy flat-screen models on display.

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Tomorrow: Some old things get more valuable over time. Read about it here.

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