Technologies to reclaim mercury from used lamps and bulbs and to safely recycle them were first developed in the United States in 1989 to help minimize human exposure to the toxic material. From then until 1999, the recycling rate for mercury lamps grew from 10 to 12 percent. In July 1999, the Environmental Protection Agency added lamps to its Universal Waste Rules (UWR), and the resulting increased awareness and enforcement brought lamp recycling up to about 20 percent by the end of 2000. Most states adopted the UWR and, in 2003, the EPA granted funds to the Calistoga, Calif.–based Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers to work with states and organizations to develop educational and outreach information about lamp recycling in the United States.
Despite the recent growth of lamp recycling, 71 percent of mercury-containing lamps used by businesses and 98 percent used in homes still are not being recycled. Such lamps, including fluorescent and compact fluorescent lamps, some neon lighting, and high-intensity discharge lamps contain about 1.8 ounces (5 mg) of mercury, which is about one-hundredth of the amount found in a thermometer. But that small amount adds up. Each year, the lighting industry uses approximately 9 tons (8.2 metric tons) of mercury in manufacturing energy-efficient lamps. Of the 514 million lamps per year that enter the solid waste stream, about 142 million come from private homes and 372 million come from businesses, the government, and institutions.
Various states have their own laws relating to mercury management, which expand upon the UWR. Massachusetts, for example, passed a Mercury Management Act that took effect May 1, 2008. The act includes a ban of low-mercury lamps with green markings and also applies to household products that use mercury. Green markings, which distinguish low-mercury fluorescent lamps from normal fluorescent lamps, vary by manufacturer. Some use green end caps while others use green lettering. One goal of the act is to reach a 70 percent lamp-recycling rate by 2012.
Businesses can take several steps to properly manage waste lamps. The first step is to assess a facility according to the following: the number of fluorescent lamps in the facility, where they are located, how often they are changed, how many are disposed of each month and year, how used lamps are stored and handled, and whether employees know what to do with a used lamp. Additionally, businesses should become knowledgeable about state and federal requirements for the management of fluorescent lamps.
The final step is to select a recycler. Websites such as www.lamprecycle.org maintain lists of companies that recycle or handle spent mercury-containing lamps. Veolia Environmental Services, which has numerous locations across the eastern and central U.S., is one company that offers a lamp-recycling service. When hazardous materials are received, they are entered into Veolia’s hazardous waste tracking system, then sent to processing. All lamp-recycling processes use a dry separation process. Packages are opened by hand and the lamps are placed into a feed mechanism, which then conveys the lamps into a chamber where a machine initially breaks the lamps.
The broken lamp pieces are crushed, and larger components such as aluminum end caps are separated out. Remaining components are separated into three process streams: glass cullet, glass fines, and phosphor powder. (Glass cullet is waste glass produced as a result of breakage and glass fines are tiny glass particles.) In the end, about 96 percent of the total bulb weight is recovered as glass, 2 percent as aluminum, less than 2 percent as phosphor powder, and less than 1 percent as mercury for refining. Mercury-contaminated phosphor powder is retorted to reclaim mercury.
As states continue to enact laws relating to safe mercury disposal, and the UWR and the ALMR continues its education and outreach programs, lamp recycling rates likely will continue to rise.
• Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers, Calistoga, Calif., www.almr.org
• National Electrical Manufacturers Association, Rosslyn, Va., www.lamprecycle.org
• U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Washington, D.C., www.epa.gov
• Veolia Environmental Services, Chicago, www.veoliaes.com