WEB EXCLUSIVE: Recycling Fluorescent Lamps

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This Web Exclusive comes from Mark A. Ceaser of OMNI/ajax Absolute Sorbent Technologies, Inc.

Throughout the country, we have seen bans and regulatory control over the exposure of the public to hazardous risks. However, one of the most overlooked dangers surrounds each of us every day. It contains potentially dangerous amounts of mercury and can be found above your desk at work, in the lamp on your child’s nightstand, and even at your local supermarket. It is known to all of us as a fluorescent light bulb.

An analysis of the lighting industry shows a trend shifting from the usage of incandescent bulbs to fluorescent bulbs. The transition is mentioned in our daily papers and on television.

Usage of fluorescent bulbs, however, is not entirely without risk. These bulbs contain mercury, an element that can have debilitating effects on humans upon prolonged exposure.

According to 40 CFR 261.24 of the Environmental Protection Agency, most of these lamps contain enough mercury to warrant them as hazardous. The risks associated with disposing mercury in landfill are far reaching, since the substance can eventually reach both the air and groundwater.

In order to establish the necessity for a national fluorescent bulb recycling law, three key components must be addressed. First, the hazards and commonality of mercury exposure; second, the safest and most effective disposal of mercury via recycling; and finally, the need to update current guidelines. Furthermore, a national fluorescent bulb recycling law would not only help the environment, but it would also promote new business growth and job opportunities, as well.

The citations of the hazards of mercury exposure are well documented and compelling. Mercury poisoning has been linked to autism and proven to cause neurological damage and death.

Mercury alternatives are being researched and tested, but its use is still found primarily in precise measuring devices, such as thermometers, sphygmomanometer and barometers, dental amalgams, mercury switches and, most commonly, fluorescent bulbs (including compact fluorescent bulbs or CFLs).

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 “retorting.” When recycling fluorescent bulbs, the entire bulb is crushed, 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%.

Unfortunately, the illegal disposal of mercury wastes continues, resulting in unnecessary exposure to people and the planet. However, a grassroots movement to protect the environment has created 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, bulbs contained less than 50% of the mercury used in those manufactured in the mid-1980s.” (Reese)

Despite the reduced amount of mercury in these lamps, the question arises—are fluorescent bulbs hazardous? Under current federal and multiple 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 are harmful to human health and the environment.

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 (MCLs) used for drinking water.”

The challenge of preventing the release of toxic materials into the environment during proper disposal demands recycling as the sensible option, which ultimately presents a business opportunity. The Department of Health offers generators the option of classifying spent lamps as either hazardous wastes or universal wastes. By practicing pollution prevention (P2) by reduction of waste generation at the source, the Universal Waste Rule (UWR) streamlines the requirements for management of waste fluorescent lighting.

On July 27, 1994, the EPA proposed two approaches for the controlling of mercury containing lamps. (Federal Register) The guidelines of the UWR encourage the collection and recycling of certain hazardous wastes. The UWR is advantageous, because it facilitates a reduction of administrative requirements for record keeping and crisis awareness.

Furthermore, education makes the data collection process easier. This leads to the elimination of manifesting requirements, unless the lamps are transported out of state or in states that do not recognize lamps as a universal waste.

In addition, there would be an increase in on-site storage time available for spent bulbs by adhering to this regulation. This gives an entity up to one year to accumulate its waste lamps prior to disposal.

If a facility chooses to store spent bulbs, strict UWR guidelines require that the mercury not be released into the environment. The lamps must be stored in a sealed, shockproof container to prevent breakage. Containers must be clearly labeled as “Universal Waste Lamps” or “Hazardous Waste” and stored in an appropriate location.

The manufacturers of fluorescent tubes are also responsible for the proper labeling of mercury containing lamps to alert customers to their hazards. In 2003, “members of NEMA (National Electrical Manufacturers Association) capitulated to the challenge of Vermont’s Mercury Reduction Act that required lamp manufacturers to label mercury containing lamps sold in that state.” (Truini). With the labeling of the symbol “Hg” on each lamp, individuals are able to recognize products contain mercury.

On September 26, 2006, a forum hosted by Environmental Protection 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 the use of compact fluorescent bulbs with a major hotel had a profound effect on cost and energy savings. He states, “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 thousand cars off the road. It’s the equivalent of taking 32 million pounds of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.” (Neville)

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 is a not for-profit organization dedicated to educating governments, municipalities, and private businesses in the practice of recycling mercury devices.

The ALMR’s Lamp Outreach program has exposed the hazards of not recycling and, subsequently, prompted nine states to take legislative action to draft laws banning the landfill disposal of fluorescent bulbs. With the partnering of businesses and government, a collaborate plan to eliminate fluorescent bulbs in landfills is underway.

To encourage recycling further, the manufacturers, who then in turn pass the costs to the consumers, will initially absorb the cost of recycling. The consumer can then return the spent bulbs to their purchase point of origin. International manufacturing com

pany, IKEA Corporation, has led this initiative of businesses to promote recycling.

Wendy Rogers, public relations representative from the Woodbridge, VA, IKEA, stated, “Sweden has been recycling for 20 years and has recently pushed for its stores in the States to recycle. There is a bin for the bulbs in every IKEA (29 in the US). Once the bin at the VA store gets full, VIM (the recycler) comes and picks up the spent bulbs.” IKEA works locally with the Clean County Community Council in Virginia, and each U.S. IKEA location recycles similarly.

This grass roots movement has recently added every Menard’s in Minnesota to its growing list. All 36 stores in the state will put used CFLs in a special container, which will then be picked up by a company that recycles them safely. The program is a partnership between Great River Energy, Menard’s and the Minnesota Center for Energy and the Environment.

Domestically, General Electric has proposed the EPA to develop a national recycling plan for mercury containing CFLs. The company produces both incandescent and fluorescent bulbs and, with an eye towards reducing the amount of greenhouse gases generated by the use of incandescent bulbs, is encouraging CFL usage.

The increased usage of CFLs, however, means an increase of mercury into the waste stream. Due to the trend toward CFL usage, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. has stated, “the increase in sales of CFLs could increase to 100 million units a year.” (LexisNexis)

In response to complaints that recycling efforts have not kept pace, critics emphasize the danger of mercury in the bulbs. A CFL has about 5 milligrams of mercury — about one five-hundredth the amount of mercury in an old oral thermometer. A few businesses and localized communities see the benefits of recycling, but in order to eliminate separate mercury releases from human activities, a national recycling program has to be established.

Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-MN) introduced such a proposal on September 29, 2006. H.R. 6261 which would “require EPA and the Department of Transportation to review tracking, storage, and packaging standards of mercury waste, and the recycling of all mercury devices, including light bulbs.” (LexisNexis).

When asked if state regulations such as the New York Mercury-Added Consumer Products Law encourage recycling, Paul Abernathy, director of the ALMR, says that state policies, which are more stringent than the federal policy, are vital. “Only federal legislation that forces the 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 to existing policy states like California or New York to make it clear that dumping is no good and only recycling can assure proper management,” said Abernathy. Furthermore he continued, “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 method for people is key. Recycling at work generally involves expending additional time, space, effort, and even money. Low disposal fees leave disposal an inexpensive method.

Creating accessible recycling facilities is as necessary as educating the public on the importance of proper disposal for the welfare of the community. Making products with recycled material slows the depletion of non-renewable resources such as metal, oil and natural gas, and reduces the encroachment of 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 translates to the generation of less pollution, such as in the air, in water, etc. With a rising global population — forecast to reach 8.2 billion by 2030 from 6.7 billion now — the generation of waste is increasing rapidly, offering big potential for recycling.

“The scarcity of virgin materials will soon become an issue,” Henrik Harjula of the Environment Directorate of the Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development told a Bureau of International Recycling (BIR) conference. He continues, “The world’s copper resources would last for another 60 years, silver 29 years, zinc 46 years while tin deposits would be exhausted in 40 years,” he said.

Nicholas Stern, an author of an influential report on climate change states, “The half a billion or more tons of greenhouse gas emissions that you avoid through recycling has a value of $40 or more per ton.” The turnover of the recycling industry, including paper and plastics, per year amounts to around $160 billion and it handles over 600 million tons of raw materials. Thanks to the recycling industry, the world already saves the equivalent of 1.8% of global fossil fuel emissions.” (Reuters)

These conditions do not escape fluorescent bulb recycling, as the individual factors of science, business and government are brought together to benefit the environment and the quality of life for all.

Whether you are an individual, an organization, a business, or a government, there are numerous steps that can be taken to reduce mankind’s carbon footprint. The significance of this must be taken to heart. The first step to solving this problem could be as simple as screwing in a light bulb.

Works Cited
-Abernathy, Paul. E-mail interview. 15 Mar. 2007.
-Neville, Angela “A 360-Degree View of Our Industry.” Environmental Protection, January/February 2007: 20-22.
-Rogers, Wendy. Telephone interview. 12 Feb. 2007.
-Reese Jr., Robert G. “Mercury,” U.S. Geological Survey, 24 Jan. 2007. http://minerals.usgs.gov/minerals/pubs/commodity/mercury/430498.pdf.
-Reeves, Dawn “GE Pushes for EPA Mercury Plan on Eve of Major Agency Bulb Campaign” Inside EPA. 23 Feb. 2007, http://marywood1.marywood.edu:2092/universe/printdoc.
-Stablum, Anna “Climate Change Spurs Scrap Metal Recycling.” Reuters, 4 Jun. 2008. http://www.reuters.com/article/environmentNews/idUSL0488184720080604.
-Truini, Joe “Lamp Makers Adding Labels.” Waste News, 3 Feb. 2003: 3.
-United States of America, Federal Register, “Hazardous Waste Management System; Modification of the Hazardous Waste Program; Hazardous Waste Lamps; Final Rule Environmental Protection Agency,” 6 Jul. 1999: 36467.

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One Response
  1. Gerard says:

    The reason CFLs have been clasified as ‘unuversal waste’ id because, after assessment by the EPA, they have been judged safe to transport in small (household) quantities and to landfill. The typical CFL contains less than 3 mg of mercury – far less than a dental filling.

    Just dump them in the trash and get on with life!

    Gerard, Sydney, Australia

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