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Reprinted from the Times Union

At life's end, what's a
proper burial for a bulb?

Mercury in energy-efficient fluorescents
poses a recycling problem

By BRIAN NEARING, Staff writer,
First published: Monday, April 30, 2007

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ALBANY -- Those squiggly compact fluorescent light bulbs are being touted as an easy solution to save energy and fight global warming. But there are drawbacks: The bulbs contain toxic mercury, and so far there is no easy way to recycle them.

In the Capital Region, homeowners are being encouraged to keep burned-out CFL bulbs until local hazardous waste recycling days, although state law allows homeowners to throw bulbs into the regular trash.

"If a resident calls me now, I am asking them to hold onto them until we can schedule a collection day," said Bill Chamberlain, Troy's solid waste coordinator. "I'm not getting too many calls yet, but it is going to be a problem."

Bulbs are collected for recycling in Albany, Colonie and Schenectady County, according to officials there, although that requires homeowners to make a trip on collection days.

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Compact bulbs use two-thirds less energy than standard incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer, with an average life span of five years, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. A compact bulb can save $30 or more in energy costs before it burns out.

So far this year, nearly 32 million CFLs have been sold, according to the Web site 18seconds.org, a not-for-profit that is pushing homeowners to replace incandescent bulbs. Of that figure, more than 120,000 were estimated to have been purchased in the Capital District.

Last week, Assembly Minority Leader James Tedisco marked Earth Day by calling on Gov. Eliot Spitzer to sign an executive order switching all state buildings from incandescent to compact fluorescent lights.

A spokesman for a national mercury recycling group said that as more compact fluorescent light bulbs are sold, the only real recycling solution will be creation of a retail "take-back" program, like that currently in place nationally for used batteries.

"You can't let consumers put the bulbs into the garbage. They are fragile and they will break, allowing mercury to escape," said Paul Abernathy, executive director of the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers, based in Calistoga, Ca.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin, and is especially dangerous for children and fetuses. Most exposure to mercury comes from eating fish contaminated with mercury.

Most mercury in New York state fish comes from the emissions of coal-fired power plants in the Ohio River Valley, which drift eastward on the prevailing winds. The state is pushing the federal government to tighten its mercury standards for power plants.

Breaking a single bulb at home, however, is not cause for panic, said Abernathy. The remains can be swept up with a broom, while taking care not to spread the contents into the air, he said. He advised against using a vacuum cleaner for the job.

"There has been this huge, aggressive campaign to get people to buy these compact bulbs, but there still is no easy access to recycling," Abernathy said.

In 2003, when homeowners disposed of 145 million compact bulbs, only about 2 percent were recycled, according to an association study. "There are 1.5 billion incandescent bulbs to be replaced," Abernathy said.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation "strongly encourages" homeowners to recycle their bulbs, said spokeswoman Lori O'Connell. The state also makes bulb recycling information available through the New York State Energy Development Authority.

In Vermont, where it is illegal for homeowners to throw away CFL bulbs, the state began a store-based recycling program in August 2005 that now includes 63 ACE and True Value hardware stores, said Karen Knaebel, mercury education and reduction coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

Since then, about 2,500 compact bulbs have been recycled. The program, which costs about $10,000 a year to run and is funded through 2009, is paid for by environmental violation fines, she said.

"Our goal is to make this self-sustaining," Knaebel said. Homeowners who bring in bulbs for recycling are asked to fill out a survey, which includes a question on whether they would be willing to spend 50 cents on the service. Two out of three are claiming they would. Nearing can be reached at 454-5094 or by e-mail at bnearing@timesunion.com.

Localities that accept compact fluorescent bulbs for mercury recycling:

-- Town of Colonie landfill, town residents only, scheduled hazardous waste collection days. 783-2827.

-- Albany's Rapp Road landfill, city residents only, at once-a-month hazardous waste collection days. Call 869-3651 in advance.

-- Schenectady County, residents only, at hazardous waste collection days at the county facility in Glenville. $15 permit good for one calendar year. Registration required; 494-2273.

This page last modified January 12, 2008
Contact Save the Pine Bush at pinebush@aol.com.