A Flash of Brilliance


The Indie 5:51, June 16, 2007

Most of us are aware that replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescents (CFLs) is a simple and cost-effective means of saving energy. But CFLs come with a downside. Fluorescent lamps, even the twisty tubes, contain mercury. When defunct, they’re hazardous waste, and recycling them is generally expensive and/or inconvenient for users. The prospect of millions of these bulbs going to landfills has recycling and regulatory officials from coast to coast casting about for preventive measures. Fortunately for Buncombe County residents, a recent county commission vote is about to provide them with a cutting edge solution.

Migratory Mercury
Fluorescent lamps produce light by passing an electric current through a tube containing a powdered form of mercury. CFLs average only about 5 mg per bulb, but the numbers add up, particularly when millions of households begin to jump on the energy efficiency bandwagon. It only takes about 100,000 CFLs in household trash to translate to a pound of mercury in a landfill. Although landfills are lined with membranes designed to keep the crushed junk and noxious goop contained, water always finds a way. Landfill mercury will eventually migrate into the surrounding water table, contaminating nearby wells and watercourses. In our case, the French Broad River might one day be at risk.

Despite the potential for mercury pollution, CFLs are still an improvement on incandescent bulbs powered by coal-fired plants. Mercury in the smoke from such facilities eventually returns to Earth in the same form as is found in fluorescent tubes. Nutritional warnings to pregnant women about high mercury levels in some types of fish and shellfish are largely the result of mercury contamination originating with the burning of fossil fuels. Link (Volcanic activity is the primary source of natural mercury pollution, averaging a third of annual global emissions.) Over the lifetime of a CFL powered by coal, 2-3 mg of mercury is discharged into the atmosphere. This compares to 10 mg of power plant mercury resulting from a comparably bright series of shorter-lived incandescent bulbs. Link A broken CFL may add another 5 mg of mercury to the environmental load. So we’re still ahead of the game, sort of. People who drink water or eat fish contaminated by this more localized pollution may have a different point of view.

CFL manufacturers and retailers are beginning to respond to the mercury problem by designing reduced-mercury bulbs. Link This is a positive development, but mercury will remain an issue until fluorescent lamps are retired in favor LEDs or another more efficient technology. Fluorescent lamp recycling will be needed for the foreseeable future.

The business community is, or should be, already on board. For years, North Carolina businesses have been prohibited from disposing of fluorescent tubes in the trash. They’re supposed to hire commercial hazardous waste contractors to collect and recycle dead bulbs. Households have been exempt, but that’s beginning to change. States including California and Massachusetts are moving to close the residential loophole. The problem that flummoxes solid waste officials is how to make the process economical and convenient.

Recycling fluorescent tubes isn’t as simple as aluminum cans or newspapers. The bulbs are fragile. If they break, the mercury they contain is released there and then. This rules out collecting them in open bins. Most recycling systems get around the breakage problem in one of two ways.

Buncombe County does it with a Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) program. Between certain hours on most Fridays, people, but not businesses, may take old paint, insecticides, batteries, computer monitors, jars of “What’s that nasty stuff?”, and fluorescent bulbs to the landfill for disposal or recycling. The county contracts with a hazardous waste hauler, 3RC Environmental, to remove the collected materials and distribute them to recyclers or disposal companies. The monetary cost to HHW users is minimal to none, but the investment in time and gas may be substantial due to the landfill’s remote location. While the program does receive some fluorescent lamps, the numbers are relatively low.

The second major recycling alternative is for householders to do what commercial enterprises do, hire a hazardous waste contractor. Companies such as Southeast Recycling Technologies of Johnson City, TN, Bethlehem Lamp Recycling, and AERC offer prepaid mail order service. Customers receive empty boxes or buckets designed to hold a specific number and type of fluorescent lamp. When the package is filled, it is FedExed back to the company as hazardous waste. For householders with various styles of fluorescent bulbs in their homes, the multiple boxes, infrequency of bulb changes, and high costs may discourage voluntary participation or mandated compliance.

Scott Mouw, with the North Carolina Division of Pollution Prevention, is one of several people I contacted in the recycling field who thinks CFL retailers should assume a primary recycling role. He says, “A robust retail takeback system may be the best model of all on a national basis, in terms of convenience, which translates into volume, which translates into efficiency.” Such systems would also presumably shift the financial burden to retailers. They could recoup expenses by adding a recycling fee to the purchase price of fluorescent bulbs.

But apart from the IKEA store chain, big box retailers have so far resisted fluorescent lamp takeback programs in the United States. Wal-Mart is happy to discuss mercury reductions in the bulbs it sells but not takeback programs. A Home Depot spokeswoman says that Phillips Lighting and Home Depot Canada are piloting a recycling program there. She says it is expected to go Canadian nation in 2008 but will not be available in the US. She had no comment on why that might be so.

Enter the Greene Plan
Driven by public demand for a decentralized CFL collection system, Buncombe County Manager Wanda Greene had an idea so simple that she may have been the first to conceive it. She wondered about, “how to make sure the recycled bulbs didn’t get broken on their way to recycling. The one thing every community has is a fire district with staff that would know how to handle anything considered hazardous, so we just asked them if they would consider being a drop off point.” 

County Solid Waste Environmental Manager Denese Ballew realized immediately that the idea had much to recommend it. Fire stations are distributed across the county. They’re staffed by HAZMAT-trained personnel and have cleanup and personal protective equipment on-site. Landfill personnel could make pick-up runs to the fire departments and feed the bulbs into the existing HHW system. Ballew made the recycling pitch to local fire chiefs on April 17th. It received unanimous support.

At her May 15th presentation to the county commission, Ballew projected the first year cost of the program at $60,000. Actual expenditures would vary depending on how many bulbs are recycled. The use of fire stations, she said, eliminated any need for infrastructure or staffing enhancements. Commissioners voted 5-0 to fund the program from the general fund, to the extent other moneys don’t become available.

Commission Chairman Nathan Ramsey later commented, “The solution was very creative and my sincere compliments go to Denese Ballew and Wanda Greene.  I hope and expect this effort to be successful and a model for other communities to follow.” Terry Albrecht, program director at Waste Reduction Partners of the Land of Sky Regional Council seconded that thought. He told me, “It’s the first effort I’ve heard of where fire departments are used, and I’m not aware of other innovative [fluorescent lamp] recycling programs in North Carolina.”

Ballew expects to announce in mid-June which county and Asheville city fire stations are participating. The program should be up and running on July 1. “In mid-June we’re really going to get the word out on the program and how to handle broken bulbs.” Before then, she hopes to have information available through the county website and newsletter.

A Brilliant Idea
Noting the county’s history of innovation in the solid waste area, Margie Meares of the Clean Air Community Trust complimented past and present landfill leadership on the new plan; “We are often leaders in this—not necessarily in the big picture sense but in figuring out how to make it real—the divine is in the details.”

As with any new initiative, those details will undoubtedly evolve with experience. Costs and funding are predictable ongoing concerns. But whatever the bumps, Ramsey’s assessment that the fire department centerpiece of the Greene plan could be widely applicable to other communities with HHW programs and HAZMAT-capable fire stations seems likely to be borne out. It may be just the stroke of genius a lot of people have been looking for.

Details for Buncombe County Residents

added June 6, 2007
The new residential-only recycling program for fluorescent light tubes and bulbs will begin on July 1. There is no charge for this service. Bring intact bulbs, or broken ones sealed in baggies, to any of the following fire stations. Bulbs must be given directly to fire station personnel and will be accepted whenever someone is there—usually 24 hr/day unless staff are away on a call.

Participating fire stations:
Asheville #2 – Livingston St.
Asheville #11 – near Biltmore Square Mall
Black Mountain
Enka-Candler – both stations
Reems Creek
Skyland – main station

Other stations may be added to this list soon. For further information on station participation or how to deal with broken bulbs, visit www.buncombecounty.org. The CFL recycling page is currently listed in the News section. At some point it will be moved, probably under Departments > Solid Waste.

—Michael Hopping
copyright © 2007 All rights reserved



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Asheville, NC