EPA, GSA Settlement Sheds Light on Need to Recycle Fluorescent Bulbs

Most of us don’t think twice about the fluorescent lights over our heads at work, but the issue of how the bulbs are thrown out and how they can be recycled took center stage in the recent resolution of an EPA complaint against the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). Last year, EPA alleged that GSA violated federal hazardous waste rules at its building on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands by disposing of fluorescent light bulbs as regular garbage. While fluorescent bulbs may seem harmless, they contain mercury and can be harmful to people and the environment if improperly discarded.

“Fluorescent lights are super efficient -- up to 80% more than incandescent bulbs -- which is great for the environment, but they do have to be handled properly once they burn out,” said EPA Regional Administrator, Alan J. Steinberg. “Most people don’t realize that every time they toss a fluorescent bulb into the regular trash, they are releasing mercury into the environment. Though these bulbs only contain a very small amount of mercury, it can add up fast. That’s why I am so pleased that GSA has agreed to make sure that fluorescent bulbs from buildings that it owns and operates in the VI and throughout their Caribbean and Northeast region are recycled."

GSA is a federal procurement and property management agency created to improve government efficiency and help federal agencies better serve the public. In the settlement, GSA agreed to complete arrangements within one year to recycle the various kinds of mercury- and other toxic metal-containing bulbs used in all of the more than 50 buildings, including buildings that house EPA offices, GSA manages for federal government agencies in the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, northern New Jersey, and New York. Currently available recycling systems can capture up to 99 percent of the mercury in these bulbs and the mercury can be reused in new bulbs. GSA will also pay a $23,000 penalty for the violations.

Other types of light bulbs, including high-intensity discharge (HID), neon, mercury-vapor, high-pressure sodium, compact fluorescent, and metal halide lamps, can also contain mercury, lead, and cadmium. EPA regulations require that non-green tip spent mercury-containing bulbs from business, industry, and government be handled as hazardous waste or under the simpler universal waste rules to prevent the release of mercury and other toxins into the environment.

While EPA recommends that even green tip spent bulbs be recycled because they do contain less but some mercury, some states have stricter requirements and may require that even green tip spent bulbs be handled as a hazardous waste.

For more information about the federal rules for the proper disposal of mercury and other toxic metal-containing bulbs visit: www.epa.gov.

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