While compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are gradually finding their way into homes, fluorescent lighting has long been the choice of facilities that want to cut energy costs and reduce their impact on the environment.
The fluorescent switch makes perfect sense: Changing to fluorescent lighting cuts energy usage for buildings by up to 75 percent, saving money and cutting pollution from power plant carbon emissions.
But, there is a small tradeoff for the energy and cost savings resulting from fluorescent lighting.
The Mercury Problem
Inside each fluorescent bulb there is a small amount of mercury, a toxic element that can adversely affect human and environmental health if released into the air or water table.
When fluorescent bulbs are in use they are perfectly safe — no mercury is released when the lights are on or off in a building.
The risk for mercury pollution starts when the bulbs break, and this usually happens during their disposal.
Whether it is when the bulbs are smashed in a dumpster or later when they break at the landfill, the mercury eventually finds its way into the environment.
The vapors can stay in and around a facility after breakage for quite some time, being inhaled by employees or others who are in the building.
If bulbs are broken in a landfill, the surrounding groundwater and land can be contaminated, harming all humans, animals and vegetation coming into contact with it.
Experts estimate that around 500 million lamps are sent to landfills each year, resulting in more than 30,000 pounds of mercury being released.
Additionally, lamp breakage itself releases up to one ton of mercury vapor into the atmosphere each year.
The negative effects that mercury has on people and the environment is manifold, but here are just a few facts:
- As a potent neurotoxin, mercury exposure can adversely affect the brain, kidneys and liver in humans and can be a source of developmental problems
- When introduced into the environment, mercury can contaminate large areas of land and water, accumulating in wildlife — usually fish —
which in turn are eaten by humans and other animals
- Mercury is so potent that just one gram of it from the atmosphere can contaminate a 20-acre lake for one year.
The potential effect of millions of mercury-containing bulbs being improperly disposed of by thousands of facilities is a harrowing prospect.
Fortunately, once facilities started learning about the hazards resulting from throwing lamps away in the trash, most started looking for a safer method of disposal.
Facilities also discovered that it wasn''t that expensive to recycle: Over the lifetime of a lamp, the cost of recycling is less than one percent of the total cost of ownership.
Recycling lamps became the accepted disposal method as the mercury can be safely removed by machinery at specialized recycling centers.
Additionally, government regulations have been established in many states requiring facilities to dispose of their bulbs through certified recyclers.
Employees collect bulbs and stack them in boxes, and once the pile gets big enough, they call to get them picked up.
Boxing bulbs and ordering recycling pickups is commonplace, but facility staff can become frustrated as the process consumes valuable time and floor space.
Mark Funkhouser, a facility manager in Santa Ynez, California, knows firsthand about the bulk bulb pickup hassle.
His 120-person staff spent significant amounts of time collecting spent lamps in their building complex and boxing them for pickup.
"We wasted a lot of time coordinating the pickup or drop-off of recyclables," Funkhouser states. "It required a lot of attention … it required labor because we had to pack the bulbs in different kinds of bins and place them wherever the pickup 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 and his staff weren''t alone in their frustration. Sheela Backen, integrated solid waste program manager at Colorado State University, oversaw a similarly complex and expensive method of bulb recycling.
Backen''s staff would pack lamps into their original cartons and load them onto a truck for transport back 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."
Lamp Crushing: A Smart Alternative
It''s troubling that facilities trying to do the right thing by recycling their bulbs get stuck with inefficient and expensive pickups — not to mention piles of boxes filled with spent lamps sitting around their warehouses.
However, an alternative method of bulb disposal has emerged that rewards facilities and their staff with low costs, increased efficiency, space savings and environmental benefits: Lamp crushing.
This method is actually as simple as it sounds.
Once they reach the end of their life, lamps are fed into a machine that breaks them down into tiny pieces.
Many lamp crushers also have a filter that captures mercury vapors from the broken tubes.
After crushing, the material is picked up by a recycler for further processing.
The savings from crushing lamps comes from the reduced cost in their pickup and transportation compared to an intact lamp pickup: Crushed lamps take up a smaller amount of space during transport and since they have already been processed, the cost of recycling the crushed material is much lower.
Here are some specific details about benefits from using a lamp crushing system:
- Because the machine can crush a four-foot lamp in just one second, a facility can reduce labor by 20 hours per 1,000 lamps versus boxing up lamps for
- Facilities can save up to 50 percent on recycling costs when they schedule a bulk recycling pickup for their crushed lamps
- Since hundreds of lamps fit into one 55-gallon drum, facilities can minimize their spent lamp storage space by using a crusher
- Crushing bulbs eliminates the fuss of dealing with piles of boxes filled with spent lamps.
Backen describes her facility''s experience with lamp crushing: "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."
Large facilities like hospitals are also seeing positive results by crushing their lamps.
Vince Celtre of Vassar Brothers Medical Center in Poughkeepsie, New York, says, "[Crushing lamps] saved us a tremendous amount of storage space. We used to box our bulbs, place them on pallets and shrink wrap them, so it has saved us in labor as well."
Paul Lewis of UnumProvident Insurance says that crushing lamps "has cut my expenses by $15,000 a year and now I''m spending virtually nothing for recycling."
Crushing bulbs can even get a little addictive for some facility staff.
Brian Weeks of Lakeland Regional Medical Center in Lakeland, Florida, saw his employees getting hooked on the whole idea: "We like it so much, my guys are running around looking for spare tubes to crush. We''ve already reorganized the warehouse and it couldn''t have been neater or cleaner."
A Logical Solution
Everyone that recycles their fluorescent bulbs is doing their part to reduce the burden of mercury on the environment.
There are people crushing lamps all over the world that are helping the environment while simultaneously saving money, time and space for their facilities.
Consider checking out lamp crushers if you are interested in keeping the environment healthy while making life a little easier for your facility.