Bag your bulbs

MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — It’s a message being drummed into the heads of homeowners everywhere: Swap out those incandescent lights with longer-lasting compact fluorescent bulbs and cut your electric use.

Governments, utilities, environmentalists and retailers everywhere are spreading the word.

Few, however, are volunteering to collect the mercury-laced replacement bulbs for recycling — despite what public officials and others say is a potential health hazard if the hundreds of millions of them being sold are tossed in the trash and end up in landfills and incinerators.

For now, much of the nation has no real recycling network for CFLs, despite the ubiquitous PR campaigns, rebates and giveaways encouraging people to adopt the darlings of the energy-conscious movement. Recyclers and others guess that only a small fraction of CFLs sold in the United States are recycled, while the rest are put out with household trash or otherwise discarded.

“In most parts of the country, it requires getting in your car and burning up your gas and going out of your way, a long ways, and people are unlikely to do this,” said Paul Abernathy, the executive director of the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers in Calistoga, Calif.

Sales of the bulbs have skyrocketed this decade — doubling last year to about 380 million after registering just 17,000 in 2000, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Recycling efforts, though, are spotty at best.

Some communities are arranging special CFL drop-off events while some city or county hazardous waste collection facilities accept them.

Swedish retailer IKEA collects the bulbs at its 34 U.S. stores, and manufacturer Osram Sylvania offers a mail-in program. In Nevada, customers of Sierra Pacific Power Co. can now take used CFLs to eight landfills to be recycled.

A few governments have targeted retailers.

The city of Madison, Wis., requires retailers that sell the bulbs to also collect them for recycling, although stores can charge a fee for it. Maine and Vermont fund programs that distribute collection bins to retailers, from neighborhood hardware stores to Wal-Marts, and get the bulbs to recyclers, either by pickup or mail.

Pennsylvania spent $8,000 to distribute white plastic buckets to several dozen businesses, community organizations and local governments that wanted them. The buckets come with a seal-tight lid, and the state pays the postage to send them to a recycler.

Two of the buckets are nestled among the expanding display of CFLs lined up on wall pegs at Ritters True Value Hardware in the east-central Pennsylvania town of Mechanicsburg, looking like something a store employee inadvertently left there while cleaning up — not a fledgling attempt to collect the bulbs for safe disposal.

Compact fluorescent bulbs each contain roughly 5 milligrams of mercury, which health professionals say is tiny in relation to the amount in a glass thermometer. Using that estimate, almost 2 tons of mercury were in the 380 million bulbs sold last year. By comparison, about 50 tons of mercury are spewed into the air each year by the nation’s coal-fired power plants.

The longer fluorescent tubes, in use since World War II, contain slightly more mercury per lamp, but recyclers typically collect them in bulk from the biggest users, businesses and factories, which are required by federal law to dispose of them properly.

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