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The How and Why of Recycling Bulbs Containing Mercury

June 4, 2020 April 28th, 2022 No Comments

Millions of mercury-containing lamps are sold in the United States each year, including linear fluorescent tubes, metal halide discharge bulbs, bug zappers, tanning bulbs, and neon signs. Between 2001 and 2013, at least 40 tons of mercury-containing lamps were sold in the U.S., according to the Northeast Waste Management Officials’ Association (NEWMOA). Unfortunately, most of these mercury-containing lights are improperly discarded.

The national light bulb recycling rate in the commercial and industrial sectors is around 30 percent, according to the Association of Light Bulb and Mercury Recyclers (ALMR). This is an especially concerning statistic when you consider that nonresidential lighting systems account for about half of all lighting and bulb manufacturing in the U.S., according to figures from the National Association of Electrical Distributors (NAED). In other words, approximately 70 percent of the millions of mercury-containing lamps sold in America each year are not discarded properly.

The Importance of Recycling Mercury-Containing Lamps

When broken, crushed, or otherwise disposed of improperly, mercury-containing bulbs may release trace amounts of mercury into the air, water and soil. Although the amount of mercury in bulbs sold today is low (typical range is between 3.5 to 15 milligrams, depending on the type of lamp, the manufacturer and when the fluorescent lamp was manufactured) a large number of improperly-discarded bulbs collectively poses a significant risk to human health and the environment.

Effect of mercury on human health and the environment

Mercury is considered one of the top ten chemicals or groups of chemicals of major public health concern by the World Health Organization (WHO). Once in the environment, mercury can be transformed by bacteria into methyl-mercury. Women who are pregnant and/or nursing may expose their babies to methyl-mercury after consuming toxic fish or shellfish.

Exposure to methyl-mercury can adversely affect a baby’s developing brain and nervous system. The primary health effect of methyl-mercury is impaired neurological development (cognitive thinking, memory, attention, fine motor, and spatial skills). Exposure to elemental mercury—even small amounts—like the kind found in fluorescent light bulbs may cause serious health problems, including:

  • Tremors
  • Insomnia
  • Neuro-muscular changes
  • Poor mental function
  • Respiratory failure
  • Death

Establishing a Light Bulb Recycling Program

Considering the number of mercury-containing bulbs across the commercial and industrial sectors, establishing light bulb recycling programs can have a significant impact on the amount of mercury released into the atmosphere due to improper disposal. The EPA outlines steps that businesses can undertake to establish a recycling program for mercury-containing light bulbs. Key steps include:

1. Assess Your Facility – How many fluorescent lamps are in the facility? Where are they located? How often do you change your fluorescent lamps? How many fluorescent lamps are you disposing of each month and year? How are you handling and storing the used lamps? Do all employees know what to do with a used fluorescent lamp?

2. Select a Recycle Program – Important factors for evaluating recycling programs include competitive pricing, service, and risk management (e.g., environmental record and compliance history, safety procedures, facility audit reports). Recycling costs vary, but typical price ranges are between $0.04 to $0.12 per linear foot for tubes and $0.50 and $1.00 for CFLs. The EPA strongly recommends that recyclers provide documentation that lamps have been properly recycled so businesses can verify compliance with state and/or federal waste management rules.

3. Establish a Process for Managing Used Fluorescent Lamps – Designate an area within your facility to store used lamps. Ideally, this area would have an air handling system that is independent of the rest of the building. Lamps should be stored in a way that avoids breakage (containers must be structurally sound to avoid leakage or release of mercury or other hazardous constituents).

4. Educate Employees – Inform employees about the dangers of mercury-containing lamps and why your business is establishing a light bulb recycling program. Employees should be trained in accordance with Standards for Universal Waste Management (40 CFR 273.16 or 40 CFR 273.36, depending on the number of universal waste bulbs generated by your business).

Universal Waste Regulations by State

EPA regulations streamline hazardous waste management standards for federally designated “universal wastes,” which include mercury-containing lamps as well as batteries and pesticides. In addition to federal waste regulations (40 CFR 273), states can add additional wastes or create different standards for handlers and recycling businesses. Check with your state’s environmental regulating program for the exact regulations that apply where you live and/or operate.

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