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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
Localities that accept compact fluorescent bulbs for mercury
-- 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;