Professional Development: Lamp Recycling Still Matters

By Daniel Krall
Published in the February 2011 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

What’s in it for me? That’s a question many facility managers (fms) ask when it comes to fluorescent lamp recycling, and for good reason. A tough economy is forcing fms to trim budgets, raising the question of how to dispose of spent lamps most efficiently.

Simply throwing the bulbs out is a tempting option. Under budgetary constraints, it can be difficult to see the point of recycling. Trashing lamps costs nothing upfront and requires virtually no labor, giving it a short-term advantage over lamp recycling. But throwing away lamps carries other financial, environmental, and public relations risks which often outweigh the comparatively small fee for recycling over the long run.

In most of the U.S., throwing away fluorescent lamps is a violation of state and federal environmental regulations. Government officials regularly audit and investigate facility compliance and, if violations are found, issue citations for fines ranging from the tens to the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

In August of 2009, the U.S. EPA fined New York City $50,000 for violating environmental regulations, including improper disposal of mercury containing lamps. The city was also required to launch a $300,000 recycling program [Source: Waste & Recycling News].

Monetary penalties are just the tip of the iceberg of financial costs resulting from an environmental citation. The immediate economic outlay required by fines is compounded both by the time spent paying the fine and meeting any additional compliance requirements (like cleaning up a Superfund site).

Lamp recycling regulations are enforced for a reason. The mercury contained in every fluorescent lamp is potently toxic; just one gram is capable of polluting a 20 acre lake for an entire year. Once polluted, a mercury tainted environment can contaminate wildlife, including human food sources such as fish. All told, about 650 million mercury containing lamps burn out each year, creating a major potential for mercury contamination if lamps are not recycled [Source: IFMA Daily.].

When a company fails to recycle its spent fluorescent lamps and receives a fine, it usually makes the news. The negative PR that results is not only detrimental to the image of the firm, but may also affect its bottom line, if customers believe that such a company cannot be trusted.

For many firms, a fine or mercury poisoning incident is a needed wake-up call that spurs improved waste management practices. [For more on general waste management strategies, see “Getting A Handle On Waste,” also from this issue.] But it’s never good to pay a penalty or damage a reputation over something preventable. Recycling lamps mitigates the risk of fines and bad publicity and can cut environmental contamination.

Recycling fluorescent bulbs can also support green marketing initiatives. In 2009, TerraChoice, an environmental marketing firm, reported that 91% of commercial or institutional purchasing budgets in North America were influenced to some degree by environmental performance considerations [Source: TerraChoice EcoMarkets 2009 Summary Report.]. The same year, 82% of U.S. consumers reported buying green products, according to Environmental Leader (an online trade publication focusing on energy, environmental and sustainability news) [Source: Environmental Leader.]. Recycling fluorescent lamps can create opportunity to reach customers like these who care about purchasing products and services created in a safe and environmentally friendly way.

Despite the many benefits, the prospect of implementing a facility wide recycling program can seem complicated and time consuming. Fortunately, recycling methods have been developed that streamline the process. Whether recycling lamps for the first time or refining an existing plan, fms can follow a few easy steps to create a quality program for their facilities.

Key data points for facility assessment include: facility square footage, fixture and lamp count, types of lamps in use, regulations governing the facility, relamping schedule, and rate of lamp burnout. Experts in lamp recycling have designed programs that are size specific, accommodate an array of lamp types, and are compliant in the varying legal contexts where fluorescent lamps need to be recycled.

Facilities of more than 150,000 square feet require recycling methods capable of handling hundreds of spent bulbs per month. One innovative approach for larger sites is to complete the first step in the process—crushing—before lamps leave the facility. When crushed and stored on-site prior to recycling, the bulbs take up less space than intact lamps, reducing storage requirements by up to 80%. Because no boxing of lamps is needed, fms can also save up to 20 hours of labor per 1,000 lamps.

For facilities of less than 150,000 square feet, fms may wish to consider lamp and ballast recycling containers. This approach allows fms to fill the appropriate container as lamps or ballasts wear out and mail it back when full. All the fm has to do is use the included, prepaid shipping label.

For even simpler recycling, fms may wish to join special programs where a replacement recycling container is automatically shipped for every container returned. This approach can save time and minimize paperwork for fms.

With assistance from a skilled lamp recycling consultant, fms can track efforts using online, printable reports and certificates of recycling. This documentation is not only helpful for internal review, but it is also proof of compliance with regulations, which makes it a useful tool for green marketing purposes.

It is easy to see lamp recycling as one more obstacle to meeting facility budgetary goals, but the real obstacle to an efficiently managed facility is throwing out fluorescent lamps. Especially in a tough economy, lamp recycling can be key to minimizing facility financial and safety risks. It can even be an opportunity to capitalize on benefits like positive environmental publicity and to enjoy the knowledge that a little more of the environment has been protected from the hazards of mercury.

Daniel Krall
Daniel Krall

Krall is marketing project coordinator at Air Cycle Corporation, an environmental service and product provider specializing in fluorescent lamp, ballast, battery, and electronic waste recycling. For more information, e-mail for additional lamp recycling articles and resources from Air Cycle.