This piece was originally published in the March 2016 issue of ei, the magazine of the electroindustry.
By Paul Rodriguez, Program Manager, NEMA
Since the first fluorescent tubes were invented in the mid-19th century, scientists have been filling glass tubes with all kinds of gases to try to get the best light possible for consumers. From carbon dioxide and nitrogen to the classic neon lamp, different gases were used for different colors and intensities of light.
Commercially speaking, “fluorescent” has become synonymous with a lamp containing mercury vapor. Compact fluorescent lamps are found in many households these days, and their presence creates a real concern from an environmental perspective.
Increased awareness of the effects of mercury has given rise to programs designed to reduce the amount of mercury we put into our environment. Lamps containing mercury cannot just be disposed of in the landfill due to ground and pollution concerns. A whole sector of the solid-waste industry came into being to deal with pressurized lamps that contain harmful gases such as mercury.
Many solid-waste facilities in the U.S. are equipped to process mercury-containing lamps for recycling, but many others rely on a third-party service to recycle these lamps. The machine used to recycle these lamps is basically an industrial crusher with a vacuum pump attached. Lamps are placed in the crusher, which crushes both metal and glass parts of the lamp.
The mercury vapor is then vacuumed out and stored in a safe container until it is used for recycling or reprocessing. Having a machine like this on hand at a solid-waste facility greatly reduces the complexity of the recycling process, but many governments have complex processes in place to recycle these bulbs.
In many states, municipal and retail locations (e.g., transfer stations and hardware stores) collect lamps in boxes. Boxes are then packaged and sent to a solid waste processing facility. This facility then processes the lamps and removes the mercury to be sent out for recycling. During this consolidation process, many boxes of lamps are broken and the mercury in them is allowed to escape into the environment. However, it is important to provide consumers with as many collection locations as possible to make the recycling process easier.
NEMA Pitches In
NEMA currently directs two mercury-containing lamp recycling programs, in Vermont and Maine. This program provides for the recycling of mercury-containing lamps through a fund-pool from manufacturers of these lamps.
The program also has an educational aspect. Every year, NEMA staff works with Vermont- and Maine-based news and advertising agencies to effectively convey the need to recycle fluorescent lamps. This program reaches millions of consumers across the two states and provides support for retail and municipal locations. Every year, NEMA staff visits both states to check on the collection sites. The program seems to work well, and recycling rates have continued to improve over the years.
New technologies may require an improved mechanism for recycling harmful gases. The fluorescent industry has seen a good start in this technology, and as regulations become more stringent, education and awareness programs will need to be increasingly active to make consumers aware of the need to recycle fluorescent lamps.
Mr. Rodriguez works in the renewables and energy efficiency arena. He manages NEMA’s High Performance Building Council and Daylight Management Council.