Services & Maintenance: Why Recycle Used Electric Lamps? - Facility Executive Magazine - Creating Intelligent Buildings

With the help of groups and some states, responsible disposal of lamps containing mercury is made simpler.
With the help of groups and some states, responsible disposal of lamps containing mercury is made simpler.

Services & Maintenance: Why Recycle Used Electric Lamps?

Services & Maintenance: Why Recycle Used Electric Lamps? - Facility Executive Magazine - Creating Intelligent Buildings

By Pamela K. Horner
From the October 2004 issue of Facility Executive magazine

Facility professionals know that using energy efficient lighting goes a long way in reducing overall energy costs. Throughout their operational life, efficient lighting systems contribute not only to visibility and safety for building personnel, but they also reduce emissions from fossil fuel generation.

But there is a catch. Most lamps classified as energy efficient are either fluorescent, compact fluorescent, or high intensity discharge (HID) types. Most of these contain very small amounts of metallic mercury (Hg) to sustain lamp life and maximize the amount of light produced per watt.

A Brief Science Lesson

Concerning Hg, the main goal should be to keep it out of the air and water. In the atmosphere, Hg can be slowly converted to ionic mercury—Hg++, also called “mercury two.” It is ionic mercury that can eventually dissolve in rain and come back down to Earth, where it may be converted by natural bacteria to methyl mercury (CH3Hg). This is the type of mercury that accumulates in fish and is often associated with effects on human health1.

Mercury does not get into the air directly from an operating lamp. It may bind with the glass or the phosphors or other coatings, but it stays in the lamp. Even when lamps are manufactured, mercury is contained by manufacturing processes or captured by filters. This leaves only one opportunity for direct mercury release from lamps into the air—breakage at the end of the lamp’s life.

This occurs when lamps are thrown into dumpsters or garbage trucks, typically prior to disposal. Because the amount of mercury content in an individual lamp is so low, breaking a small number of lamps does not present a health threat to workers. The improper disposal of large numbers of lamps, however, adds to the global reservoir of mercury.

Disposal Options

So when it’s time to throw away used energy efficient lamps, what’s a facility professional to do? The three basic lamp disposal options are:

  • Conventional solid waste (where the waste will either go to an incinerator or a landfill);
  • Hazardous waste; and
  • Recycling.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the federal entity that defines legal baseline options for disposal of waste that contains mercury. EPA classifies mercury containing lamps as “universal waste,” simplifying disposal of this substance.

While EPA regulations encourage responsible disposal, they do allow for some exemptions—depending on the classification of user, type of lamp, and number of lamps to be disposed. This means that in parts of the U.S., lamps may be legally discarded in the conventional solid waste stream (trash), eventually finding their way to incinerators or landfills.

Conversely, some states, counties, and municipalities have imposed much stricter disposal requirements than those put forward by the EPA. For example, legislation has been passed that bans most—or even all—mercury containing waste lamps from solid waste in California, Maine, Minnesota, New York, Vermont, and portions of Florida. Rhode Island and Connecticut have banned these lamps from solid waste as well, exempting household users from restrictions.

The Case For Recycling

Mercury containing lamps are now quite inexpensive to recycle. However, the process still costs more than the recycled content is worth, so users must pay a small fee to have them recycled.

How small? Over the life cycle of a fluorescent lamp, the cost to recycle today is less than 1% of the cost of ownership, as the bulk of ownership dollars is spent to cover energy costs.

With a goal of keeping large amounts of mercury out of the air, the two biggest opportunities with electric lamps are: to use energy efficient lamps, (thereby driving down mercury emissions from coal fired power plants); and to avoid breakage when lamps are ready to be disposed.

The best way to avoid breakage at the end of life is to send intact lamps to a reputable lamp recycling company, where it is estimated that only 0.2% to 0.4% of the mercury is emitted to the atmosphere2.


Lamp and mercury recycling have become a mature, professional industry in the U.S. One example of this maturation is the formation of the Association of Lamp and Mercury Recyclers (ALMR), a non-profit organization serving as an educational and informational resource to government, business, and the public.

ALMR members currently recycle about 80% of the mercury containing lamps diverted from the municipal solid waste stream. Today, recyclers offer a variety of lamp collection options, which significantly simplify the lamp disposal process for facility managers.

No doubt, the biggest trend in building design and maintenance is sustainability. This concept, which encourages people to meet current needs without compromising the future, is a natural fit for lamp recycling. Largely as a result of educational efforts by industry and government, lamp recycling in the U.S. has increased from 70 million lamps in 1997 to 156 million lamps in 20033.

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) lamp section members have undertaken a number of efforts to encourage lamp recycling, particularly for businesses, which use more than 80% of all mercury containing lamps. Four years ago, NEMA established a Web site ( to provide information on lamp recycling nationwide. This Web site contains a list of lamp recyclers as well as links to all state Web sites with information about lamp disposal.

NEMA has also partnered with ALMR and the Solid Waste Association of North America (SWANA) in a national outreach and education campaign as part of a Cooperative Agreement Project for the Development of a Lamp Recycling Outreach Program. This effort is being funded by the U.S. EPA. The output of this project is an interactive CD-ROM that gives state-by-state stringency requirements for disposal of mercury containing lamps, as well as a comprehensive list of state contacts. The CD, which is free to the public, was scheduled for distribution in September of this year.

The increased awareness of the harmful effects of mercury on the environment and the fact that there are organizations making it easier to recycle, give facility professionals two good reasons to do so. This way, those who put lamp recycling in their budgets will keep on the sustainability path and still maintain energy efficient lighting.

Horner is environmental marketing manager of OSRAM SYLVANIA’s general lighting division. The company is based in Danvers, MA. To find out more information on the company and its services, visit

Are you recycling lamps? Please send your related stories to [email protected].


1 E.B. Swain, D.R. Engstrom, M.E. Brigham, T.A. Henning, and P.L. Brezonik, Increasing Rates Of Atmospheric Mercury Deposition In MidContinental North America, 1992, Science 257: 784-787.
2 Truesdale, Beaulieu, and Pierson, Research Triangle Institute, Management of Used Fluorescent Lamps: Preliminary Risk Assessment, May 1993.
3 NEMA, August 2004.


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