Fluorescent Recycling Centers Now Established and Growing
Finding a recycling firm is fairly straightforward. The lamp recycling industry in the United States is established, growing and has the capacity to recycle all the lamps in use, Dolin says.
Each facility's recycling needs and schedule will vary based largely on the volume of lamps, as well as the other waste that it generates. Some facility managers can store lamps in their buildings for up to one year without involving regulators, says Abernathy. Each year, however, they have to provide evidence that lamps were recycled by obtaining a certificate from a recycler. Any generator of hazardous waste, including lamps, retains liability for the waste forever. "The only way it goes away is if you have evidence that it's gone and the hazard doesn't exist any more," Abernathy says.
Facility managers can find recyclers at www.almr.org, the Web site of the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers, or www.lamprecycle.org, which offers lists of recycling firms.
To start, the recycler will need some basic information, such as the size of the building, the approximate number of lamps to be recycled and the estimated recycling schedule, Abernathy says.
Some recyclers offer "box programs," which are well-suited for smaller companies, Howley says. The recycler sends the facility a box designed to store spent lamps safely, as well as packing materials and instructions. Once a box is full, or at least once a year, the facility manager checks that lamps are properly packed, seals the box and sends it to the recycler.
Some facilities with larger numbers of lamps may want to consider a bulk recycling program, says Barry Jordan, national sales manager for electronics recycling with Veolia ES Technical Solutions. The facility manager accumulates one or two pallets of lamps to be recycled (following applicable guidelines for storage) and then calls for a pick-up by the recycling firm.
At the recycling facility, most of the materials in the lamps, including the glass and metal, are recycled, says Linda Barr, chief of the chemicals management branch in the resource conservation and recovery office of the EPA. The lamps are crushed and the mercury captured and reheated, Tibbetts says. Currently, the mercury is re-used, often in new lighting systems, although the market for this may eventually decline, he says.
One recycling option available in some areas is the use of a device to crush lamps at the facility itself. Rather than transport the lamps to a recycling facility, crushers are designed to crush any lamps that need to be recycled in such a way that none of the mercury leaks. However, the use of crushers is controversial, and some states and municipalities prohibit it, Tibbetts says. Also, by using a crusher, the facility manager must then ensure the mercury is handled properly. "It opens a can of worms that many locations don't want to open," Tibbetts says.
Facility managers can take several steps to evaluate potential recycling firms. All recycling companies should have an audit book that is verified by the state regulator, indicating where and how the company operates, and how it processes lamps, Jordan says. This book should be available for review by those interested in working with the firm.
Analyzing this information is key, because the hazardous waste regulations are written so that if a recycler goes out of business without fulfilling its obligations, the entity that generated the waste retains responsibility for it. That's why facility managers need a good handle on the recycler's waste disposition process and its financial resources; a few fly-by-night firms have taken their customers' money, but failed to actually recycle their waste. Facility managers also need to check the firm's references, as well as its compliance with state recycling regulations, Jordan says.
It's also important to recognize that some firms are brokers, and don't actually recycle any waste themselves. Instead, their role is to bring together firms that generate waste with those that handle recycling. Most are legitimate businesses. However, if a facility manager uses a broker, it is still important to get information on the company that will be doing the recycling.
To be sure, properly disposing of lighting devices and ensuring that the mercury contained within them is appropriately recycled carries a slight cost. While many recyclers can sell some of the materials they recycle, this doesn't generate enough revenue to cover their expenses, Jordan says.
Several factors come into play in determining final cost. These include the number of lamps to be recycled and the distance to the recycling facility. Generally, the expense is manageable, and typically comes to about 1 percent of the total cost of owning and operating a light, Dolin says. In contrast, the energy needed to operate the lamp accounts for about 86 percent of the overall cost. Another estimate of the cost of recycling is about 8 cents per foot of lighting, plus shipping, says McGuire.
Looking to the Future
While many in the industry have dedicated much money and their top scientists' time to finding alternatives to mercury in fluorescent lights, they haven't been able to eliminate it completely and still provide a lamp that performs effectively.
However, they have made great strides in reducing the amounts of mercury used. As recently as 1990, mercury-containing lamps held an average of 43 milligrams of mercury, NEMA reports. By 2004, more than half the lamps sold contained less than 10 milligrams of mercury, according to NEMA.
Some day, alternative lighting technologies, including LED (light emitting diodes) or OLED (organic light-emitting diode) could help society switch to mercury-free lights, Howley says.
For now, facility managers should follow the regulations that cover the disposal of lamps that contain mercury. Mercury is one pollutant that can be controlled by recycling. Ensuring that it is recycled is "the right thing to do," Tibbetts says.