Services & Maintenance: Why Recycle Used Bulbs?

By Jennifer Dolin
Published in the August 2007 issue of Today’s Facility Manager

lighting lamp disposal environment EPA facilities
This recycling feed process conveys the lamps into a chamber where a breaker performs an initial particle size reduction. (Photo: SYLVANIA.)

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 it’s not that simple. 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 mercury (Hg) to sustain lamp life and maximize the amount of light produced.

A Brief Science Lesson

Mercury is a naturally occurring element. It’s listed on the periodic chart and, as an element, can neither be created nor destroyed.

The amount of mercury that exists today is the same amount that existed at the time the dinosaurs roamed the earth. However, by extracting mercury from coal, cinnabar, and other materials, it is released into the environment at an increased rate.

Mercury is an element that has several forms and can change between them under the right conditions. In the atmosphere, elemental mercury released through human and natural emissions can be slowly converted to ionic mercury which can eventually dissolve in rain and come back down to Earth (where it may be converted by natural bacteria to methyl mercury). This is the type of mercury that accumulates in fish and is often associated with effects on human health.

The Lamp Connection

Fluorescent lamps begin life with a tiny amount of pure mercury which efficiently generates ultra-violet radiation that is converted to visible light by phosphor—the white coating on the inside of the lamps. If the lamp design is such that the mercury consumption is too high, the lamp life, number of starts, color, and light output can be dramatically affected.

Lamps will consume all the pure mercury before reaching rated life, requiring additional lamp replacements, which increases mercury usage. A telltale sign that a lamp has run out of mercury is that it will turn pink. Pretty, but ineffective as a light source. This leads to spot re-lamping, which increases maintenance costs.

Mercury does not get into the air directly from an operating lamp. It may bind with the metals, glass, or the phosphors or other coatings, but it stays in the lamp. Even when lamps are manufactured, mercury is contained by the 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.

It is estimated that close to 100% of lamps are broken en route to landfills or incinerators. This statistic is based on a study by the Research Triangle Institute, “Management of Used Fluorescent Lamps: Preliminary Risk Assessment,” October 1992, Turesdale, Robert S., et al.

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:

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

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is the federal entity that defines legal baseline options for disposal of waste that contains mercury. Mercury containing lamps that fail the federal Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) test are deemed hazardous waste, falling into the category of “universal waste” under the EPA’s January 6, 2000 ruling. The impact of this rule is that it may be slightly less expensive to dispose of lamps as Universal Waste than as hazardous waste, because certain storage, transportation, and record keeping requirements may be reduced or eliminated.

While EPA regulations encourage responsible disposal for hazardous waste, 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.

While TCLP-passing lamps are considered non-hazardous waste, 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, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Vermont, and portions of Florida. New York, Rhode Island, and Connecticut have banned these lamps from solid waste as well, exempting household users from restrictions.

The Case For Recycling

It is possible to keep mercury out of the air by sending 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 atmosphere.

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 are spent to cover energy costs.

The estimated breakdown of costs is as follows:

  • Cost of materials: 3%;
  • Cost of installation and maintenance: 10%;
  • Cost of energy consumption: 86%; and
  • Cost of recycling: 1%.

Even with these statistics, businesses are hesitant to incur extra costs. This is the greatest barrier to recycling.

However, states that have passed landfill bans for mercury containing products issue varying levels of penalties for infringement of these regulations. Recycling—and obtaining a certificate of recycling from the recycler—is a guaranteed way to avoid fines and enforcement actions which can easily exceed the cost of lamp recycling.

Recycling In The 21st Century

It’s hard not to notice that sustainability—in everything from product manufacturing to transportation to building design and maintenance—has become an important driver in business decision making. Lamp recycling plays an important role in achieving sustainability goals, primarily in the reuse of natural resources and in the responsible handling of hazardous materials.

Lamp and mercury recycling has become a mature, professional industry in the U.S. There are dozens of recycling companies operating throughout the country, offering a multitude of recycling options. 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 2006.

There are several options for facility managers seeking lamp recycling solutions. Because of the eased storage regulations of the Universal Waste Rule, facility managers can store lamps on-site and coordinate scheduled pickups with lamp recyclers who typically provide storage containers or pallets for their customers.

Another alternative for managers of multiple, geographically dispersed facilities is a “reverse distribution” system that consolidates spent lamps at a central collection location for pickup.

Lastly, many lamp recyclers offer pre-paid, pre-labeled recycling kits. These kits give smaller locations the convenience and simplicity of lamp recycling using a standard overnight delivery system.

Kits consisting of specially tested boxes and pails with liners are ordered online or through distribution. One price covers delivery to the user, the kit itself, recycling costs, return delivery charges, and a certificate of recycling. The facility manager merely sets it up, fills it up, seals it up, and calls for a pickup.

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

The Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers (ALMR) also posts information about recycling and state requirements. ALMR members currently recycle about 80% of the mercury containing lamps diverted from the municipal solid waste stream.

The increased awareness of the harmful effects of mercury on the environment and the fact that there are companies and organizations making it easier to recycle give facility professionals two good reasons to do so. Those who put lamp recycling in their budgets can stay on the sustainability path and maintain energy efficient lighting.

Dolin is environmental marketing manager of OSRAM SYLVANIA’s general lighting division. The company is based in Danvers, MA. For additional information on the company and its services, including the industry’s first recycling program with Veolia Environmental Services, visit