Brazil’s pursuit of the World Cup means millions of tons of junk TVs

Gotta watch is somewhere.
Gotta watch is somewhere.
Image: Reuters/Ivan Alvarado
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The World Cup is here, finally, and Brazil is gathering to watch. Literally—in anticipation of the event, the sales of TV sets have spiked in the last few months, as electronic retailers have been enjoying for the past quarter.

The host country has been producing 30% more TV sets than last year, according to the Asociação Nacional de Fabricantes de Produtos Eletrônicos (National Association of Electronics Producers)—which means that, by the end of this year, Brazil will have between 18-20 million more TVs than when it started. By May, over half of them had been sold to giddy Brazilians in anticipation of seeing their team, the big favorites, win the sixth World Cup of its history in high definition.

The paixão pelo futebol, as they say in Brazil of their passion for soccer, might have unexpected effects. For every new TV set that comes into a Brazilian home, an old one usually goes out. A study by the World Bank pointed out that Brazil currently produces 14 lbs. of electronic waste per person every year, which makes it the leader in this type of garbage in Latin America. And it is rising: the government expects the amount will go up to 17.5 lbs per person by 2015. Television sets account for the largest type of e-waste in Brazil.

In all, Brazil saw 1.4 million tons of electronics thrown out in 2012, up from 917,000 tons in 2011, which was the first year the government calculated the country’s e-waste. With the increase in sales, the amount is likely to go up to 65.4 million tons by 2017.

Brazil’s numbers are followed closely by Mexico’s, which with 1 million tons was Latin America’s second largest e-waste producer in 2012. Next in the ranking are Colombia, which generated 100,000 tons, and Peru, with 90,000 tons.

The reason for this sudden increase lies in the sociological changes brought by Brazil’s economic ascent of the last four years. “Brazilians tend to donate their old TV sets,” Vanda Scartezini, author of the World Bank’s study, explained. “But following the increase of the Brazilian middle class and of consumption levels in recent years, fewer and fewer people are willing to accept a small or obsolete TV set.”

In spite of the volume, Brazil does not have any laws on recycling and handling this type of waste. In 2010, the government signed a bill to define the national policy on dealing with solid disposal, with four years to define the specific outline of the law in agreement with companies of the electronics and electricity sector. Until now, no decision has been made and the deadline is fast approaching.

Therefore, plans on how to handle the waste are left to each Brazilian citizen and company to make.

“Every company and every state has their own system… Some better than others,” Ademir Brescansin, sustainability manager at Asociação Brasileira da Indústrial Elétrica e Eletrônica (Brazilian Association of the Electric Industry, or ABINEE) told Quartz. “Brazil is as big as the US, but development is very uneven in every region, resulting in very different attitudes towards disposal and recycling.”

Brescansin pointed out that 63% of electronics sales are concentrated in the south and southeast of the country—but those areas are the ones with the fewest recycling plants and transportation between both areas and the center is scarce. A federal policy would have to take into account the peculiarities of every state in the country. “That is why it is taking so long,” he explained. “There are many issues to iron out before reaching a decision that will be suitable for everybody and minimize costs.”

As things stand, this time next year, Brazil will be peppered with abandoned TV sets, posing a potential health risk for citizens. Televisions, particularly cathode-ray tube (CRT) models, have highly toxic components, such as lead, phosphorus and barium, which when burned into the air or dissolve into the ground could cause neurological afflictions and respiratory ailments. As Brazil makes the jump from this outdated TV to plasma and LCD (which will be produced exclusively from 2015 on) more CRTs are expected to be discarded.

A correct policy as the World Bank study pointed out, “should focus on collection and initial processing of electronic waste, including segregation, crushing and disassembly (…); these activities have the best outcome per investment in terms of job creation and environmental impact.”