Lighting the Future

The increased use of high-efficiency fluorescent lamps, which contain mercury, is pushing the demand for better recycling programs for these products

An analysis of the lighting industry shows a significant shift from the use of incandescent bulbs to fluorescent bulbs. Incandescent bulbs use more fossil fuel energy, cost more and are less effective than fluorescent bulbs, which produce more lumens. Usage of fluorescent bulbs, however, is not entirely without risk because they contain mercury, a chemical compound that can have debilitating effects on humans upon prolonged exposure. The risk of leaving mercury deposits in landfills is high; therefore, recycling seems the most conscientious and environmentally safe recourse. Our analysis will show that a national fluorescent bulb recycling law not only helps the environment but promotes new business growth and job opportunities as well.

Because of mercury’s unique properties, the most effective way to dispose of wastes that contain the hazardous substance is by recycling. This 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.

The traditional 4 foot bulb contains approximately 15 mg of mercury. In contrast, the compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) contain approximately 2 to 3 mg of mercury per bulb. The reduction of mercury content was a result of the green movement of the 1990s to reduce the amount of mercury in fluorescent lamps. Continued illegal disposal of mercury wastes continues, resulting in unnecessary exposure to people and the planet. However, a grass roots movement to protect the environment has created momentum to generate a national law prohibiting the disposal of fluorescent bulbs in landfills.

In recent times, manufacturers in the fluorescent lighting industry have made an effort to reduce mercury content in the light bulbs produced. Consequently, fluorescent bulbs manufactured from the late 1990s through the present contain less than 50 percent of the mercury found in fluorescent bulbs manufactured during the mid-1980s.1 Despite the reduced amount of mercury in these lamps, the question arises as to whether fluorescent bulbs are still hazardous. Under current federal and multiple state laws, mercury-containing lamps may be considered to be a hazardous waste. If the mercury content of a waste lamp exceeds the regulatory Toxic Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) limit of 0.2 milligrams per liter, the lamp(s) fail the toxicity test and must be managed as hazardous waste.

In addition to mercury, they contain other materials -- such as lead and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) -- which could be potentially harmful to human health and the environment. As stated in the Federal Register (Volume 64, Number 128, Page 36467) published on July 6, 1999, “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.”

Two Disposal Options for Generators
Recycling is the sensible option to ensure that mercury-containing fluorescent lamps are disposed of properly and toxic materials are not released into the environment. In addition, recycling can create excellent business opportunities.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) offers generators the option of classifying spent lamps as either hazardous wastes or universal wastes Universal wastes have the content and potential to be recycled, despite having hazardous properties. IN contrast, hazardous wastes cannot be recycled. By promoting pollution prevention (P2) through the reduction of waste generation at the source, the Universal Waste Rule (UWR) (40 Code of Federal Regulations 273) streamlines the requirements for management of waste fluorescent lighting.

On July 6, 1999 in the Federal Register (Volume 64, Number. 128, Page 36466), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added mercury-containing lamps (e.g. fluorescent bulbs) as a new federal universal waste. The guidelines of the UWR encourage the collection and recycling of certain hazardous wastes, including fluorescent bulbs, batteries, pesticides and mercury-containing equipment (e.g. thermostats). The UWR is advantageous because it facilitates a reduction of administrative requirements for recordkeeping, crisis awareness, and education makes the data collection process easier. This leads to generators 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.

A conditionally exempt small quantity generator, which produces 100 kilograms (kg) a month or less of hazardous wastes(equal to approximately 3,000 four foot fluorescent lamps), is allowed to dispose of mercury-containing materials via recycling or a qualified disposal facility. This allows an entity up to one year to accumulate its waste lamps prior to disposal. Many environmentalists hope that eventually a law will be enacted making it mandatory for all generators to recycle mercury-containing wastes.

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. 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 the 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.2 With the labeling of the symbol “Hg” on each lamp, individuals should recognize these products contain mercury.

Racheting Up Recycling Efforts
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, 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 collaborative plan to eliminate fluorescent bulbs in landfills is underway. ALMR’s position is that to further encourage recycling, the cost of recycling should be initially absorbed by the manufacturers, which then, in turn, pass the costs to the consumers. The consumer can then return the spent bulbs to their purchase point of origin. An international retailer, IKEA Corporation, has led the initiative of businesses promoting recycling.

“Sweden has been recycling for 20 years and has recently pushed for its stores in the United States to recycle,” Wendy Rogers, public relations representative from the IKEA store in Woodbridge, Va., said during an interview conducted by the authors of this article on Feb. 12.

According to Rogers, “There is a bin for the bulbs in every Ikea (29 in the United States). Once the bin at the Virginia 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.

Domestically, General Electric has proposed that EPA develop a national recycling plan for mercury-containing compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs). The company produces both incandescent and fluorescent bulbs. With an eye toward reducing the amount of greenhouse gases generated by the use of incandescent bulbs, GE is encouraging CFL usage.3 The increased usage of CFLs, however, means an increase of mercury into the U.S. waste streams. Wal-Mart, the retailing giant, has stated because of the trend toward greater CFL usage, “the increase in 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 mercury releases from improper disposal of fluorescent bulbs, a national recycling program still needs to be established. Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-MN) introduced such a proposal, H.R.6261, on Sept. 29, 2006, in the U.S. House of Representatives. The proposed legislation would “require EPA and Department of Transportation to review tracking, storage, and packaging standards of mercury waste, and would review the recycling of all mercury devices, including light bulbs.”

Paul Abernathy, ALMR director, stated that state policies that are more stringent than the federal policy are vital. He made this response when asked in an interview conducted by the authors of this article on March 15, if state regulations, such as the New York Mercury-Added Consumer Products Law, encourage recycling.

“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 to attempt to get policies like California’s or New York’s to make it clear that dumping is no good and only recycling can assure proper management,” said Abernathy. “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. At this time only municipalities and local communities are implementing voluntary collection programs. Recycling at home or 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. 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 as the result of recycling typically also means generating less pollution that impacts the surrounding air, water and soil. Fluorescent bulb recycling brings together the individual factors of science, business and government to benefit the environment and the quality of life for us all.

1 Reese Jr., Robert G. “Mercury” U.S. Geological Survey. 24 Jan. 2007. 1998

2 Truini, Joe “Lamp Makers Adding Labels.” Waste News 3 Feb. 2003: 3

3 Reeves, Dawn “GE Pushes for EPA Mercury Plan on Eve of Major Agency Bulb Campaign” Inside EPA. 23 Feb. 2007

Mercury’s Use and Menace

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. It was also acknowledged with the 19th-century English hat maker's derogatory "mad as a hatter" moniker. The process of sealing the hats involving licking the glue used. This glue contained minor but damaging amounts of mercuric salt.
In all these steps, hatters would accumulate the metal in their bodies.We now know that mercury is a cumulative poison that causes kidney and brain damage. Physical symptoms include trembling (known at the time as hatter’s shakes), loosening of teeth, loss of coordination, and slurred speech; mental ones include irritability, loss of memory, depression, anxiety, and other personality changes. This was called Mad Hatter syndrome.

Scientists are researching and testing alternatives to using mercury in products. However, it is still being used primarily in precise measuring devices such as thermometers, sphygmomanometer and barometers, dental amalgams, mercury switches, and, most commonly, fluorescent bulbs.

Fluorescent Lamps’ Energy Edge

On Sept. 26, 2006, participants in the Environmental Roundtable hosted by Environmental Protection discussed a variety of topics, including changes in the waste industry. Jim Hattler, chief operations officer of Mercury Waste Solutions Inc., offered an example of how regulatory changes affect waste fluorescent bulb management practices. According to Hattler, when a major hotel switches over to the use of compact fluorescent bulbs, it can profoundly decrease the hotel’s costs and energy consumption. 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 22,000 cars off the road. It’s the equivalent of taking 32 million pounds of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.” (To access this article at no charge, which originally appeared in our magazine’s January-February 2007 issue, go to our Web site and check out our Archives.)

By converting from incandescent bulbs to fluorescent bulbs, users can realize significant energy savings. Fluorescent bulbs can reduce energy usage as much as 75 percent compared to regular incandescent bulbs. With fluorescent bulb recycling, there is an obvious environmental advantage.

This article originally appeared in the 06/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

About the Authors

Anthony Zippi is a graduate of Penn State with a bachelors degree in Logistics. He currently works for Wal-Mart in Tobyhanna, PA as a terminal dispatcher and is pursuing a master's of business administration at Marywood University, Scranton, PA.

Mark Ceaser is General Manager of OMNI/ajax, a manufacturer of spill control materials for mercury spills. He is currently pursuing a Masters of Business Administration at Marywood University, Scranton, PA. As a result of his efforts, Ceaser was recently awarded the Melvin Medal Award for Excellence for Library Utilization for his efforts in "Lighting the Future"

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