On Recycling of Fluorescent Bulbs

All fluorescent bulbs contain mercury. In fact, the standard fluorescent bulb has about 20 milligrams of mercury. It is clear that these lamps must be managed properly to protect human health and the environment. The risk of leaving mercury deposits in landfill is high; therefore, recycling seems the most conscientious and environmentally safe recourse. A comprehensive fluorescent bulb recycling strategy will not only help in environment protection but can also promote new business growth and job opportunities.

An analysis of the lighting industry shows a trend shifting from the usage of incandescent bulbs to fluorescent bulbs and LEDs. Incandescent bulbs use more energy, are more costly and are less effective than fluorescent bulbs in the amount of artificial light they produce as fluorescents produce more lumens than incandescents.

Usage of fluorescent bulbs, however, is not entirely without risk because they contain mercury, a chemical compound that can have debilitating effects on humans upon prolonged exposure. Because of its unique properties, the most effective way to dispose of mercury-bearing wastes is through recycling.

Continued illegal disposal of mercury wastes continues, resulting in unnecessary exposure to people and the planet; however, a grassroot movement to protect the environment has created momentum to generate a national law prohibiting the disposal of fluorescent bulbs in landfills.

en.lighten Initiative and Middle East

The UNEP/GEF en.lighten initiative was launched in September 2009 as a globally coordinated effort to accelerate the transition to efficient lighting and mitigate climate change, The objective of the initiative is to calculate the potential electricity savings, CO2 emission reductions and the economic benefits that could be realized from phasing out inefficient lighting and replacing them with compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). Around 100 countries were analyzed globally, with 19 hailing from the MENA region.

Several countries in the Middle East are already taking measures to promote efficient lighting. Six countries (Egypt, Lebanon, Iran, Turkey, Morocco, and UAE) have already distributed tens of millions of CFLs in total.

Countries like Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, and Lebanon have announced ban on the sale of all incandescent bulbs by specific target years. Likewise Qatar has already announced plans to phase out use of incandescent bulbs. However, the promotion of CFLs demands a viable strategy to counter broken and disused fluorescent bulbs in order to prevent its harmful effect on the environment and public health.

Recycling Strategy

Proper disposal of mercury-contained fluorescent lamps is essential to prevent release of toxic materials into the environment. The manufacturers of fluorescent tubes are responsible for the proper labeling of mercury-containing lamps to alert customers to their hazards.

With the labeling of the symbol “Hg” on each lamp, individuals should recognize these products contain mercury. In United States, fluorescent bulbs and other types of energy-efficient lighting as well as nickel-cadmium batteries, pesticides and thermostats are regulated under the Universal Waste Rule (UWR).

Proper disposal of mercury-contained fluorescent lamps is essential

The UWR allows businesses, government agencies and other generators an opportunity to recycle bulbs and other types of universal waste at the end of life rather than manifesting and disposing of them as a hazardous waste. This can result in significant savings for the business or property owner. Recycling also helps protect our environment from potentially toxic materials.

Many governments and retailers are offering CFL recycling schemes that safely handle the mercury. Private industry has to partner with government to develop a plan to eliminate fluorescent bulbs in landfills.

To further encourage recycling, the cost of recycling should be initially absorbed by the manufacturers, who in turn, may pass the costs to the consumers. The consumer can then return the spent bulbs to their purchase point of origin. This has worked in other recycling sectors, and it can also work with mercury-containing devices such as fluorescent lamps.

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About Mark Ceaser

Mark A. Ceaser is the Director of OMNI/Ajax ,a Pennsylvania manufacturing firm focused on production of spill control materials for hazardous waste cleanup. He holds BA in Management and MBA in Finance & Investment and has written white papers regarding medical waste disposal, bloodborne pathogen handling and the recycling of mercury bearing wastes that have been published in various publications. He co-holds US patents for aerated foamed recycled cellulose fibers particularly as a replacement for clay cat litter and alternative daily landfill cover. Mark has over 20 years of experience in manufacturing spill control materials along with consulting clients on their waste management issues.

11 Responses to On Recycling of Fluorescent Bulbs

  1. Phil Buder says:

    This article states that compact fluorescent lights (CFL) are significantly more energy efficient than incandescent light bulbs. Sadly no metrics were given for immediate comparison. The CFL benefit belies other related impacts to society. However, the mercury exposure problem for CFL was mentioned and it continues to be another of those toxic legacy concerns of public record.
    It seems to me unreasonable for any government to impose a ban on the use of lighting options other than CFL and then impose a recycling tax on consumers of CFL who have no choices. Rather, I say offer all choices but add whatever is an appropriate environmental tax (i.e. net of any credits) to each specific type to properly recycle that type of light bulb. Only then will we better know a truer cost for comparison of lighting options. The consumer will then be better informed to choose wisely and pay accordingly. That ought to lighten each of our days!
    Regards, Phil Buder.

    • Naseem Aziz says:

      Hello Phil the energy s
      avings in using CFL over an incandescent lamp is 75%. Yes mecury is an issue when disposing the burned out CFLs but there are now systems in place which not only destruct the disposed CFLs in an environment friedly manner but also prevent the emission of mercury into the atmosphere. The total mercury in a CFL is less than 10 milligram and its accidental emission into the atmosphere is much below the safe levels of mercury specified in the National Environment Quality Standards for Air.
      Since I was involved in a project which proposed to replace 20 Million incandescent lamps with CFL the impact on the national grid was 1500 MW (a figure which is very impressive as far as Pakistan is concerned).
      There is however one minor issue which can be handled at the grid level and that is Power factor dip due to large scale use of CFLs, this can be overcome by the use of suitable CFLs supplied with in-built capacitors to overcome the inductive load.

      • Stuart Jeffcott says:

        Hello Naseem
        I am currently working in Pakistan on something similar (although only 1m lamps). So I am interested how you dealt with the disposal problem. Did you resolve it?

  2. Fatima Al-Banna says:

    This is interesting, I never heared this before! 🙂

  3. Dina Ala'Eddin says:

    Thanks Mark for this article, this topic always make me worry, do you know any safety procedures for dealing with these bulbs in case they get broken in our houses?

  4. Andrew says:

    Thanks for sharing this amazing information with us.Its really a great technique.

  5. Headwater says:

    It has been about 18 months since this article ran. The 100 million lamps are in addition to the existing fluorescent lamps installed and the additional lamps purchased…
    What has been done to address the issues related to recycling?

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  8. Vikas says:

    Nice blog post.

  9. Cliford says:

    I have a company which we deal with lights Maintenance. I’ll love to know if you do recycling of this old bulbs and led lights

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