Digital switchover

Last update: January 2010


It’s the future of TV but what’s the environmental impact of going digital asks Simon Birch


Are you ready for the big switchover? In line with most other industrialised countries, the UK is now in the middle of converting the current analogue TV signal and replacing it with a new, cutting-edge digital signal.

The consequence of the switchover is that every household will have to convert their existing cathode ray tube telly by either buying a cheap ‘set top’ digital box or buying a far more expensive digital telly.

So far so good. The bad news though is that unbelievably – given the scale of the operation – the environmental impact of the switchover has largely been overlooked.


Shocking waste

The Ethical Sceptic recently surveyed those regions that went digital during the summer and uncovered a shocking picture of waste.

“During the switchover in Devon this summer we were inundated with abandoned TVs and we just couldn’t cope,” says Vic Cavell from the Devon Furniture Forum, a group that refurbishes unwanted furniture and electrical goods before selling them on at knock-down prices to low-income households.

“The vast majority of the TVs that were handed in were in perfectly good working order and could have easily been converted to receiving the new digital signal by simply adding a digital set top box.”

Vic Cavell’s experience this summer was confirmed by a spokesperson from Devon County Council: “Between April and September Devon County Council handled over 80,000 unwanted TVs, an increase of almost 100% on the same period last year.”


Same problem throughout the UK

A similar picture emerged in Cumbria which, like Devon and Cornwall, went digital this summer. Between April and September 50,000 TVs were handled by Cumbria Recycling, the social enterprise company that deals with unwanted TVs for Cumbria County Council.

This represented an increase of almost 70% compared with the same period last year. And of these, over 60% - some 30,000 TVs - were capable of being converted to receive digital TV with the addition of a digital set top box.

So just what is the environmental impact of all these dumped TVs?

To be honest nobody really knows as the research simply hasn’t been done. Nobody is suggesting though that these thousands of dumped TVs will simply end up in landfills, as a new EU law has banned this outdated method of waste disposal.

Clearly what’s happening is that households are using the digital switchover as an opportunity to get rid of their old cathode ray tube TVs and upgrade to what they think is better, more up-to-date technology in the form of digital TVs.

The problem is that the production of all these new digital TVs uses finite resources and energy that directly contributes to climate change.


Easily solved

The irony of course is that all these resources, all the carbon dioxide and pollution emitted in production, could have been prevented simply by people keeping hold of their existing telly and upgrading them with a £30 digital set top box.

“The Government’s own research shows that using products for their full working lives could reduce UK greenhouse emissions by 800 million tonnes by 2050. And save households money,” says Julian Kirby from Friends Of the Earth.

So could this waste have been prevented and have lessons been learned to stop the same thing happening when the majority of the UK goes digital over the course of the next two years?

The Ethical Sceptic believes that Digital UK, the organisation responsible for the digital switchover, could have and should have done more to reduce the environmental impact of the switchover.

Yes, Digital UK makes it clear, in the brochure that it has sent to every household, that existing TVs could be converted to receive digital TV just by buying a digital set top box. But nowhere is there anything to suggest that by doing this you can help the planet and save yourself a packet.

Plus nowhere in the same brochure is there any indication that there are now 14 different low-energy set top boxes available in the High Street all of which have been endorsed by the Energy Saving Trust.

In response Digital UK said that: “We make it clear that viewers do not need to buy a new television for switchover. While we are not currently planning to include additional information on environmental issues in our leaflets, it is something we regularly review.”

Back in Devon Vic Cavell remains unconvinced: “Digital UK could have done more to encourage people to keep their existing TVs. Throwing them away is just a complete waste.”

To find out more about low-energy set-top-boxes visit the Energy Saving Trust website: or call: 0800 512012.


First published in Ethical Consumer 122, January/February 2010