It’s an old story. A problem arises and government steps in to fix it. A bureaucracy forms, and long after the problem is fixed, disappears or changes, the bureaucracy – unable to adapt or phase itself out – continues to grapple with the fiction of the original problem, creating distortions and waste in the process.

Such is the case with a program to promote the recycling of cathode ray tubes – so-called “CRTs.”  California lawmakers were already late to the party in 2003, when a new law created a structure that taxed consumers of new electronics and used the revenue to incentivize recycling of the lead-tainted funnel tubes into new ones.

These tubes, once in every American’s TV set, arrayed dancing photoelectrons in such a way that sitcoms like “Petticoat Junction” were viewable (if that show was ever truly viewable). Each tube contained up to eight pounds of lead in its glass, which made TV sets of the day so heavy and clunky.

Over time, technological advancements and consumer preferences favored flat-screen technology, but the government program was premised on continuing demand for the toxic funnel tubes. Now, with nearly no demand for the CRT glass, state couch potatoes are adjusting their dials and feeling like the recycling fee they’ve been forced to pay at the point of purchase has been zapped into the ether as the lead-tainted glass goes into the ground or forms ever-growing above-ground stockpiles prone to abandonment.

According to data supplied to E-Scrap News this month by the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery, less than 5 percent of the CRT glass waste generated in California was recycled in 2016, It may, in fact, be far less than even 5 percent.

The state, hoping no one would really notice, has allowed the emergency landfilling of an estimated 35 million pounds of the stuff in 2016. Yet it’s still collecting recycling fees from consumers.

The remaining 39 million pounds, according to the publication WasteDive, was sent to intermediate processing facilities that are permitted to break, clean and test the glass. Those companies aren’t required to report on whether the material is landfilled or recycled. Some processors are reported to be storing the glass indefinitely in growing toxic piles in the outback of the American West.

“Lots of smaller recyclers are in over their heads, and the risk that they might abandon their stockpiles is very real,” Jason Linnell of the Electronics Recycling Coordination Clearinghouse told the New York Times in 2013. That abandonment wave is happening now.

The publication American Recycler reported in 2016 that India-based Videocon was the world’s last manufacturer of CRTs.

The result of all this? In an unexpected plot twist, the nation’s greenest state has lost its franchise-defining link with recycling in an area where it matters most – the fate of lead-containing CRT waste.

Not only is California making a quick buck off captive consumers by continuing to charge a recycling fee, it has inspired the private sector to do the same. Retailer Best Buy discovered last year it could charge a $25 recycling fee to accept old cathode tube television sets in most states. Unless Best Buy has been able to do what California has not – find a market for the leaded glass – the funnel tubes are entering the same scrap stream.

And last year, in the cruelest of ironies, the California Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery – better known as CalRecycle – said it needed to hike the consumer recycling fees. As of the first of the year, the fee range, depending on screen size, went from $3 to $5 per new device to $5 to $7.

If this story were a screenplay for a 1970s network mini-series, it would require the immediate services of a Hollywood script doctor for its lack of believability. While consumers have been paying higher recycling fees – believing the cash was ensuring end-of-life recycling of CRTs – the money has simply been going to the State Board of Equalization and virtually no recycling is occurring.

Just a few years ago, district attorneys across the state hit retailers with millions of dollars in fines for unlawfully disposing of electronic waste. Now retailers are separating their e-recyclables, but the state Department of Toxic Substances Control is now allowing most CRTs to be landfilled or piled up in the desert by third parties.

Who can blame the state’s TV connoisseurs if they believe they’ve been inserted into an episode of “The Outer Limits”?