- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 21, 2008

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.

Even if recycling efforts have been meager, environmentalists and government officials say it is important to balance the positives of CFLs against any negatives.

For instance, CFLs can curtail the need for energy and thereby cut pollution from power plants. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, a coal-fired power plant will emit about four times more mercury to keep an incandescent bulb glowing, compared with a CFL of the same light output.

“People should care about mercury, and if they do, they should be working to save energy wherever they can and CFLs are a great answer to that,” said John Rogers, a senior energy analyst for the Cambridge, Mass.-based group.

To recycle his spent CFLs, Mr. Rogers bags them, stores them in the basement and drops them off when his town, North Reading, Mass., holds a recycling event.

David Stotler, a railroad clerk from Maytown, Pa., does not know of a local option to recycle CFLs, so he threw out the one or two in his home that burned out.

The bulbs do not release mercury if they are used properly and recycled, and the EPA and state governments have written guidelines for how to clean up the mercury from a broken bulb.

“I’m just amazed that the government is not paying more attention to this,” said Kim N. Dietrich, a professor of environmental health at the University of Cincinnati, whose primary concern is the hazard that would result if the mercury from millions of bulbs escapes into the air and waterways before working up the food chain.


A broken compact fluorescent light bulb releases a mercury-containing powder, some of which can evaporate into the air, and is difficult to contain or clean up.

Mercury, a neurotoxin, is thought to have the biggest impact on the developing brains of fetuses, infants and young children through sustained exposure.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has written guidelines on how to clean up a broken bulb and the mercury. In general, the area should be vented well by opening windows to reduce the mercury air concentrations; mercury should be carefully scooped up using paper or cardboard, or picked up using tape or a sticky material; and the glass and mercury powder should be sealed in a glass jar or plastic bags.

The EPA’s full guidelines are at http://www.epa.gov/mercury/spills/index.htm

Some states have made it illegal to throw CFLs in the garbage, while other states advise residents to seal a burned-out or broken CFL in two plastic bags if they are going to dispose of it in their regular trash.

The EPA lists state laws at http://www.epa.gov/epaoswer/hazwaste/id/univwast/statespf.htm



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