The Mercury Problem
Fluorescent lighting has long been the choice of school, hospital and manufacturing facilities that want to cut energy costs and reduce their impact on the environment. Changing to fluorescent lighting from incandescent lighting cuts energy usage for buildings by up to 75%, saving money and cutting pollution from power plant carbon emissions.
However, there is a small trade-off for the energy and cost savings resulting from fluorescent lighting. Inside each fluorescent bulb, there is a small amount of mercury, which is a toxic element that can adversely affect human and environmental health if released into the air or water table. When fluorescent bulbs are in use, they are safe. No mercury is released when the lights are on or off in a building.
The risk for mercury pollution starts when the fluorescent bulbs break, which usually happens during their disposal. Whether it is when the fluorescent bulbs are smashed in a dumpster or later when they break at the landfill, the mercury eventually finds its way into the environment. Mercury vapors can remain in and around a facility after breakage for quite some time, being inhaled by employees or other occupants. If fluorescent bulbs are broken in a landfill, the surrounding groundwater and land can be contaminated, potentially harming all who come in contact with it. According to the EPA, approximately 670 million fluorescent light bulbs are disposed of annually in the United States, resulting in the release of approximately two to four tons of mercury into the environment. Additionally, bulb breakage itself releases up to one ton of mercury vapor into the atmosphere each year.1
The negative effects that mercury has on people and the environment are manifold, but here are just a few facts: as a potent neurotoxin, mercury exposure can adversely affect the brain, kidneys, and liver in humans and can be a source of developmental problems for children. When introduced into the environment, mercury can contaminate large areas of land and water, be ingested by wildlife (usually fish), which in turn is consumed by humans. Mercury is so potent that just one gram of it from the atmosphere can contaminate a 20-acre lake for one year.
Needless to say, the potential effect of millions of mercury-containing fluorescent bulbs disposed improperly by schools, hospital and manufacturing facilities is a harrowing prospect. Fortunately, once the EPA and OSHA enacted rules and regulations to manage the recycling of these materials, facilities began investigating safer methods of fluorescent lighting disposal. Facilities soon discovered that it wasn’t expensive to recycle: over the lifetime of a fluorescent bulb, the cost of recycling is less than 1% of the total cost of ownership. Recycling light bulbs became the accepted disposal method, as the mercury could be safely removed by machinery at specialized recycling kits or centers. Additionally, government regulations were passed in many states requiring facilities to dispose of their bulbs through certified recyclers.
If they do recycle their fluorescent bulbs, most facilities do so by boxing them up and arranging for a pickup by the recycler that they use. Employees collect bulbs and stack them in boxes, and once the pile gets big enough, they call to get them picked up. Boxing bulbs and ordering recycling pickups is quite common, but facility staff can quickly get frustrated with this process as it consumes valuable employee time and floor space.
Sheela Backen, Integrated Solid Waste Program Manager at Colorado State University, oversaw a complex and expensive method of light bulb recycling. Her staff would pack fluorescent bulbs into their original cartons and load them onto a truck for transport back to a recycling facility. "That method presented a lot of problems," Backen says. "We couldn't get people to make sure the cartons were full, taped and marked with the date. When the truck was coming to pick them up, we would have anywhere from six to eight people filling boxes, taping them back up, and then loading this truck. It was not cost-effective at all."
Lamp Crushing: A Smart Alternative
An alternative method of fluorescent lighting disposal has emerged that may help reward facilities and their staff with low costs, increased efficiency, space savings, and environmental benefits.
This method is fluorescent bulb crushing, which is actually as simple as it sounds. Once they reach the end of their life, lamps are fed into a machine that breaks them down into tiny pieces. Many light bulb crushers also have a filter that is used to capture mercury vapors from the broken tubes and some remove the mercury vapors in each bulb with a three-stage HEPA filtering process. After crushing, the material is picked up by a recycler for further processing. The savings from crushing fluorescent bulbs come from the reduced cost in their pickup and transportation compared to an intact light bulb pickup. Crushed bulbs take up a smaller amount of space during transport, and since they have already been processed, the cost of recycling the crushed material is much lower.
Crushing fluorescent bulbs offers facilities multiple benefits. A facility may reduce labor by as much as 20 hours per 1,000 bulbs vs. boxing up bulbs for pickup. Secondly, facilities may save up to 50% on recycling costs when they schedule a bulk recycling pickup for their crushed bulbs.
Finally, since hundreds of bulbs fit into one drum, facilities can minimize their spent bulb storage space. No more piles of boxed-up bulbs lying around!
Sheela Backen describes her facility’s experience with the Bulb Eater®, a popular fluorescent bulb crusher: "The bulbs are brought to a specific location. I send one person over to the location for a couple hours a week to crush the tubes. It's very quick and efficient, and I don't have to waste so much time trying to load a truck."
Crushing light bulbs can even get a little addictive for some facility staff. Brian Weeks of Lakeland Regional Medical Center saw that his employees were getting hooked on the whole idea: “We like it so much, my guys are running around looking for spare bulbs to crush. We've already reorganized the warehouse and it couldn't have been neater or cleaner”.
Seeing Green Results
Fluorescent light bulb crushing has helped facilities save money, space and time over other bulb disposal methods. However, some facilities wanted to measure their impact on the environment as a result of crushing their bulbs. One manufacturer responded by introducing online recycling reports, an innovative tool that users could analyze to see how much waste they had recycled. Every time users filled up a drum with crushed lamps and had it shipped off, they could see their progress on a special web report that detailed the exact amount they recycled. The reports also tracked progress over time, so a facility could see exactly how much waste they recycled from month to month or year to year. This became a useful tool not only for internal review, but also for green public relations campaigns. Facilities could now report on their green progress with tangible data, showing exactly what they were doing to become environmentally friendly. Schools could report out on their green initiatives to students, school boards and parents, while hospitals could inform board members, patients and employees.
However, informing parents and patients means nothing if regulators aren’t convinced of a school’s or hospital’s green progress. Many recycling companies are issuing certificates of recycling to facilities that crush their bulbs. These certificates help demonstrate that a facility is doing their part to keep mercury out of the environment. Certificates of recycling can be shown to state or federal EPA officials and can help a facility avoid steep fines and the resultant potential negative publicity.
Everyone that recycles their fluorescent light bulbs is doing their part to help reduce the burden of mercury on the environment. People using fluorescent bulb crushing machines are helping the environment while also saving time, money and space for their facilities. Consider checking out bulb crushers if you are interested in keeping the environment healthy while making life a little easier for your facility personnel.
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Article courtesy of Air Cycle Corporation