Home Lighting Proper Disposal of Fluorescents Keeps Mercury Out of the Waste Stream

Proper Disposal of Fluorescents Keeps Mercury Out of the Waste Stream


NATIONAL REPORT—The next time you think about throwing away a fluorescent lamp, think twice. Fluorescents contain a small amount of hazardous material—mercury. In fact, it is the mercury that conducts the charge that produces light. When disposed of improperly, the mercury can cause great harm to not only the environment, but to every link in the food chain—humans included.

As of November 2004, according to a report released by the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers, 70 percent of the mercury lamps used by businesses were not being recycled. Throughout the United States, regulations vary on proper disposal of fluorescent lamps. A company could be at risk of severe financial penalties, criminal prosecution and long-term liability if products containing mercury are improperly recycled. Even in states where some disposal is allowed, waste haulers may refuse to take what is considered to be hazardous waste.

“There are a number of states—approximately 20—that have exemptions that allow small quantity generators to use the waste stream,” says Doug McMillan, general manager of Mercury Waste Solutions Inc., Roseville, Minn. “California just eliminated that exemption. Just because state and federal regulations allow it, however, does not mean it is acceptable.”

To ensure that all fluorescents are disposed of properly, several companies now offer pre-paid container services. Such companies include Mercury Waste Solutions, Phoenix-based Earth Protection Services and Broadview, Ill.-based Air Cycle Corp. These companies provide safe containers, return freight, and recycling. Mercury Waste Solutions provides online tracking and reporting of all recycled and outstanding containers. Air Cycle also provides online tracking.

By using companies such as those described above for recycling, companies can save money, avoid potential health hazards, reduce liability and ensure environmental health and safety. Participation in recycling programs also guarantees that the glass, metal, mercury and other products from the lamps are reclaimed for use in manufacturing other products. Pre-paid containers also can be used for ballasts. Older lamps that may contain PCBs and newer non-PCB ballasts can be recycled.

To Crush or Not to Crush

At least one company, Air Cycle, manufactures a fluorescent lamp crusher for on-site bulb crushing. Scott Beierwaltes, president, says his company’s Premium Bulb Eater not only crushes fluorescent lamps of any length into 100 percent recyclable material, but also captures more than 99 percent of the vapors released through a filtering process. The system, which is mounted to a 55-gallon container, can hold up to 1,350 four-foot fluorescent lamps. Beierwaltes says the Bulb Eater is in about 40 to 50 hotels, including some Marriotts.

“The Bulb Eater is designed for facilities 150,000 square feet and larger,” Beierwaltes says. “Our Easy Pak program is geared toward facilities 150,000 square feet and smaller.”

Before purchasing a crusher, be sure to check to make sure it is legal in your state. There are also other important considerations.

“According to Universal Waste regulations, the moment you break lamps, you have to treat the material as hazardous waste,” McMillan says. “There is also some potential for off-gassing of mercury vapors. In some states you need a permit to crush lamps. Some states will also mandate training. Here in Minnesota, the state has banned the use of crushers.”

Beierwaltes says the number of states that require permits to crush fluorescent lamps is about the same as that of states who regulate it within their own Universal Waste rules and that the remaining states allow the use of crushers without permits provided the process is managed within hazardous waste regulations.

McMillan says the remnants of the lamps his company recycles go in numerous directions. Recycled glass is used in fiberglass and in road material, metal is purchased by various manufacturers, and mercury is reused by lamp companies, firms that make different instruments, and by dentists.

Brian Burke, director of energy programs for Hyatt Hotels Corp. in Chicago, says that his company’s policy since the early 1990s has been to properly recycle fluorescent lamps through an approved recycler. Recycling companies provide a barrel or boxes that are either picked up or shipped when full.

“Our policy is that all fluorescent lamps get recycled,” Burke says. “T-8s, T-12s, compact fluorescents and high-intensity discharge lamps—all are included.”

To ensure adherence to Hyatt’s policy, individual hotels are asked to provide documentation during operational reviews.

Hyatt does not use bulb crushers in its hotels but other hotel chains such as Marriott do use them.

Helpful Resources

To learn more about fluorescent lamp recycling, visit the following websites:

Mercury Waste Solutions Inc.
Air Cycle Corp.
EPA Federal Laws and Regulations
State Laws and Regulations
LampRecycle.org—Includes list of companies throughout the United States and Canada that recycle fluorescent lamps.
The Pacific Palisades Hotel recycles fluorescent lamps. See article.

Glenn Hasek can be reached at greenlodgingnews@aol.com.