Cleaning & Maintenance Management Online

Recycling fluorescent lamps is affordable and easy

September 19, 2010
Does your facility have fluorescent lights?

Spent fluorescent lamps are not recommended to be discarded in dumpsters as ordinary solid waste because they contain mercury.

This is a major challenge for many facilities across the country since nearly every facility uses this source of lighting and more than 650 million lamps are disposed of each year.

The dangers of not complying
Mercury is linked to serious health issues, such as blurred vision, numbness in limbs, speech impairment, severe convulsions, developmental problems, loss of consciousness, insanity, birth defects, autism and more.

A single four-foot fluorescent tube contains 5 to 50 milligrams of mercury.

When conventional disposal methods are used, mercury vapors can travel over 200 miles.

Hence, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates fluorescent lamps and stipulates strict guidelines for their disposal.

Facilities that do not comply with these regulations not only bring harm to the environment, but they also risk costly fines.

In fact, if fluorescent lamps are found in landfill sites and traced back to the offender, the party can be penalized with the cost of the landfill cleanup, in addition to any other fines levied.

Therefore, it greatly benefits companies and institutions to adhere to EPA guidelines and appropriately dispose of fluorescent lamps.

Old methods versus new methods
Many companies have found the disposal of fluorescent lamps to be both labor- and cost-intensive, but have endured the burden in an effort to remain compliant.

These hurdles have caused the marketplace to develop new methodologies.

As a result, fluorescent lamp disposal is far easier and less costly than ever before.

Prior to coming across these new methods, Sheela Backen, Integrated Solid Waste program manager at Colorado State University, had to supervise a complex and costly method of fluorescent lamp disposal — packing used lamps back into original cartons and loading them onto a truck.

The truck would then transport the lamps to a recycling facility.

“That method presented a lot of problems,” Backen says. “We couldn’t get people to make sure the cartons were full, taped and marked with the date. When the truck was coming to pick them up, we would have anywhere from six to eight people filling boxes, taping them back up, and then loading this truck. It was not cost-effective at all.”

Case studies
Today, however, Backen and the staff use a device that safely crushes and contains the bulbs.

“The bulbs are brought to a specific location. I send one person over there for a couple hours a week to crush the tubes. It’s very quick and efficient and I don’t have to waste so much time trying to load a truck,” Backen explains.

This OSHA- and EPA-compliant machine crushes over 1,000 fluorescent lamps and packs them into a drum.

Another integral part of this recycling is making sure the process is fully enclosed and filtered, so that the glass, aluminum and harmful vapors are contained.

With this system, Backen simply leaves the drums until they are picked up and transported to an EPA-permitted lamp recycling facility where the contents are separated, treated and ultimately reused.

“The cost of shipping a truckload of boxed tubes is a whole lot more than shipping a drum of crushed tubes,” Backen adds.

Mark Funkhouser, custodial services manager with the Chumash Casino Resort in Santa Ynez Valley, CA, was having similar problems disposing of fluorescent lamps before finding an easier way.

His method was through a local waste hauler, who would remove the lamps in bins.

“It required a lot of attention,” Funkhouser recalls. “It required labor because we had to pack the bulbs in different kinds of bins and place them wherever the truck pick-up was going to be. We also were never sure of the outside contactor’s schedule, so we really didn’t know when he was going to come.”

Funkhouser then found a removal method that greatly reduced the attention and labor — a pre-paid recycling program.

“It is a great system because we can just put the box in a corner of the warehouse and then as the engineers bring the bulbs back, they put the bulbs in the box and it’s ready for shipping,” Funkhouser says. “When it gets full, we just close up the top, stick a label on the box and ship it off. It’s definitely reduced our labor.”

The service allows Funkhouser to ship lamps to licensed recycling facilities.

Both Backen and Funkhouser have found their recycling systems to be very accommodating of their individual fluorescent lamp disposal needs.

Match your needs
The decision of which type of service is best for your operation is dependent on the facility size and the quantity of lamps needing disposal.

A facility of more than 200,000 square feet is a great candidate for Backen’s chosen process, especially if the facility has limited storage space.

Smaller facilities, which require the same type of service, but generally do not generate enough lamps, are typically more attracted to Funkhouser’s recycling method.

Either choice will help you avoid costly and labor-intensive recycling of fluorescent lamps.

Since mercury presents many hazardous outcomes if not properly handled and disposed of, a system that keeps workers and the public safe is always a good idea.


Scott Beierwaltes is the CEO of Air Cycle Corporation, Broadview, IL. Air Cycle manufactures technology that safely disposes fluorescent lamps within EPA guidelines. The company also offers a pre-paid recycling program that packages and recycles lamps, batteries, ballasts, thermostats and electronics.