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Fluorescent lamp recycling: Lighting the future

September 19, 2010
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An analysis of the lighting industry shows a trend away from incandescent bulbs to fluorescent bulbs.

Incandescent bulbs use more energy and are more costly and less effective than fluorescent bulbs in the amount of artificial light they produce, as fluorescents produce more lumens than incandescents.

Using fluorescent bulbs, however, is not entirely without risk because they contain mercury, a chemical compound that can have debilitating effects on humans.

The risk of leaving mercury deposits in landfills is high.

Therefore, recycling is the most conscientious and environmentally safe course.

A national fluorescent bulb recycling law not only helps the environment, but also promotes new business growth and job opportunities.

Lesson on mercury
The hazards of mercury exposure are well-documented and compelling.

Mercury poisoning has been linked to autism and has been proven to cause neurological damage and death.

Mercury was also acknowledged with the 19th century English hatsmith’s derogatory “mad as a hatter” moniker.

The process of sealing the hats involved licking the glue used.

This glue contained small, but toxic, amounts of mercuric salt.

Alternatives to using mercury in products are being researched and tested, but it is still found in precise measuring devices, such as thermometers, sphygmomanometer and barometers, dental amalgams, mercury switches and, most commonly, fluorescent bulbs.

Because of its unique properties, the most effective way to dispose of mercury-bearing wastes is through recycling.

This process requires the separation of the mercury waste from other compounds by a process called “screening.”

When recycling fluorescent bulbs, the glass and metal end caps are removed from the waste and the resulting residue is then processed by a series of heating cycles to produce elemental mercury with a purity of 99.99 percent.

Illegal disposal of mercury wastes continues, resulting in unnecessary toxic exposures.

Movement has begun
However, a grassroots movement to protect the environment has created enough momentum to generate a national law prohibiting the disposal of fluorescent bulbs in landfills.

In fluorescent lighting, mercury content was used to reduce the extent that light bulbs produced, and, as a result, in the late 1990s fluorescent bulbs contained less than 50 percent of the mercury used in those manufactured in the mid-1980s, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The question arises, despite the reduced amount of mercury in these lamps, are fluorescent bulbs hazardous?

Under current federal and many state laws, mercury-containing lamps may be considered a hazardous waste.

In addition, they contain other materials, such as lead and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which could be potentially harmful to human health.

As stated in the Federal Register: “Mercury has proven mobile in municipal solid waste landfill environments, migrating in leachate to contaminate ambient groundwater at concentrations exceeding the federal maximum contaminant levels for drinking water.”

The proper disposal of mercury-contained fluorescent lamps, in order to prevent releasing toxic materials into the environment, creates a demand for recycling, as well as a profitable business opportunity.

The Department of Health offers generators the option of classifying spent lamps as either hazardous wastes or universal wastes.

Practicing pollution prevention (P2) by reducing waste generation at the source, the Universal Waste Rule (UWR) streamlines the requirements for the management of waste for fluorescent lighting.

In 1994, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) proposed two approaches for controlling mercury-containing lamps.

According to the Federal Register, the guidelines of the Universal Waste Rule encourage the collection and recycling of certain hazardous wastes.

The UWR is advantageous because it reduces administrative requirements for record-keeping, crisis awareness and education that make the data collection process easier.

This leads to having no manifesting requirements, unless the lamps are transported out of state or in states that do not recognize lamps as a universal waste.

Finally, there is an increase in on-site storage time available for spent bulbs by adhering to this regulation.

This allows an entity up to one year to accumulate waste lamps prior to disposal.

If a facility chooses to store spent bulbs, strict UWR guidelines require that the mercury within is not released into the environment.

The lamps must be stored in a sealed, shockproof container to prevent breakage.

In addition, the containers must be clearly labeled as “Universal Waste-Lamps” or “Hazardous Waste” and stored in an appropriate location.

Awareness required
The manufacturers of fluorescent tubes are also responsible for the proper labeling of mercury-containing lamps to alert customers to their hazards.

In 2003, Vermont’s Mercury Reduction Act required lamp manufacturers to label mercury-containing lamps sold in that state.

With the labeling of the symbol “Hg” on each lamp, individuals can and should recognize that these products contain mercury.

In 2006, a forum hosted by the EPA discussed changes in the waste industry.

Jim Hattler, COO of Mercury Waste Solutions Inc., offered an example of how regulatory changes affect waste fluorescent bulb management practices.

According to Hattler, a change to compact fluorescent bulbs in a major hotel chain had a profound effect on cost and energy savings.

“There are over 125,000 hotel rooms. Each one has an average of five bulbs. If they replace their incandescents with compact fluorescents, it’s the equivalent of taking 22,000 cars off the road and taking 32 million pounds of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere,” stated Hattler.

By converting from incandescents to fluorescents, there are obvious energy savings.

With fluorescent bulb recycling, there is an obvious, inevitable environmental advantage.

The Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers (ALMR) is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating governments, municipalities and private businesses in the practice of recycling mercury devices.

Its Lamp Outreach program has exposed the hazards of not recycling and, subsequently, inspired nine states to take legislative action to draft laws banning the landfill disposal of fluorescent bulbs.

Question of cost
With businesses and government working together, a collaborative plan to eliminate fluorescent bulbs in landfills is underway.

To further encourage recycling, the cost of recycling should be initially absorbed by the manufacturers, who, in turn, pass the costs to consumers.

Consumer can then return the spent bulbs to where they bought them.

International home furnishings company Ikea Corp. has led the initiative of businesses to promote recycling.

Taking the lead
Wendy Rogers, public relations representative of the Woodbridge, VA, Ikea, states, “Sweden has been recycling for 20 years and has recently pushed for its stores in the states to recycle.”

Ikea works locally with the Clean County Community Council in Virginia, and each U.S. Ikea store recycles similarly.

Domestically, General Electric has proposed that the EPA develop a national recycling plan for mercury-containing compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs).

The company produces both incandescent and fluorescent bulbs and, with an eye towards reducing the amount of greenhouse gases generated by incandescent bulbs, is encouraging CFL usage.

Increased usage of CFLs, however, means an increase of mercury in the waste stream.

Wal-Mart has stated that because of the trend toward CFL usage, “sales of CFLs could increase to 100 million units a year.”

While a few businesses and local communities see the benefits of recycling, in order to eliminate/separate mercury releases from human activities, a national recycling program has yet to be established.

Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-MN) introduced such a proposal in 2006.

Gutknecht’s H.R. 6261 would “require the EPA and the Department of Transportation to review tracking, storage and packaging standards of mercury waste, and would recycle all mercury devices, including light bulbs.”

When asked if state regulations, such as New York’s Mercury-Added Consumer Products Law, encourage recycling, Paul Abernathy, director of ALMR, said that state policies that are more stringent than the federal policies are vital.

“Only federal legislation that forces EPA to act will help, and no one knows when or if that will happen, so states are our last hope. The ALMR has targeted 12 states in an attempt to get policies like those of California or New York to make it clear that dumping is no good and only recycling can ensure proper management,” says Abernathy.

He adds: “Another major factor is enforcement, and we aren’t seeing much of that either. A little enforcement with some media attention will help a lot.”

To encourage universal recycling, creating an easy way to do it is key.

Recycling at home or work generally involves expending additional time, space, effort and even money.

Low landfill disposal fees make disposal an inexpensive option.

Creating accessible recycling facilities is as necessary as educating the public on the importance of proper disposal of these toxic materials.

Making products with recycled materials slows the depletion of non-renewable resources, such as metal, oil and natural gas, and reduces the need for new mining and drilling operations.

Generally, it takes less energy to make products with recycled materials than virgin materials.

Using less energy by recycling typically means generating less pollution.

Fluorescent bulb recycling brings together science, business and government to benefit the environment and the quality of life for all.


Mark A. Ceaser is general manager of OMNI/ajax (www.omni-ajax.com), a manufacturer of spill control materials. He earned a bachelor’s degree in management from Misericordia University and an MBA from Marywood University. His efforts for Lighting the Future were rewarded with the 2008 Melvin Medal for Excellence in Scholarly Investigation award from Marywood University.
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