Why recycling fluorescent light bulbs is important
Tuesday, May 01, 2018
Scientists have studied the effects of mercury exposure for decades, and the information is undeniable — mercury is a dangerous neurotoxin.
Mercury has been definitively connected with neurological and behavioral disorders, and yet, lamp manufacturers still make mercury-based fluorescent bulbs. In fact, even with this knowledge, the EPA banned the production of incandescent bulbs more than 20 years ago, putting much of America’s lighting future into fluorescents.
First, let us understand why mercury is used. A fluorescent bulb works by exciting phosphorescent material with electricity. The excited phosphorescent material gives off light. There needs to be mercury vapor inside the tube to carry a charge of electricity and create the light.
There are other materials that can conduct the electricity and give off light — neon, argon and halogen are examples. But mercury and phosphorous are highly efficient and give off a broad spectrum of colors that make for a pleasant, white light.
A good, old-fashioned incandescent bulb, like the one Thomas Edison’s lab invented, works by passing electrical current through a tungsten-coated filament. The filament is excited by the current and vibrates, creating light. While incandescent bulbs are generally free from materials as toxic as mercury, they are also markedly less efficient.
Because incandescent bulbs are pretty much nontoxic, anyone can toss them in the trash. They don’t take up much space and they certainly don’t cause toxic pollution. But fluorescent bulbs are a different story. Their design often involves thin tubes that are more susceptible to breaking. That releases the mercury inside, mostly in the form of vapor, that enters the air.
That’s why fluorescent bulbs are considered regulated waste by the EPA. Special care is needed to handle them as waste.
Many cities and counties now offer special hazardous waste collection programs to handle household waste like fluorescent bulbs or used paint. They utilize technology like drum-top bulb crushers that compact the glass tubes, while capturing the mercury for recycling.
It is important to note that fluorescent bulbs actually help the environment. Americans still rely heavily on fossil fuels to make electricity. Coal, the number one fuel used to produce electricity in the United States, is a very dirty energy source. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, burning coal releases sulfur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOX), particulate matter, and mercury into the air.
Coal plants in the United States are responsible for 42 percent of all mercury emissions. That’s a huge difference from natural emissions, like volcanic and geothermal emissions, which make up only 2 percent of the atmospheric mercury worldwide.
The good news is that global mercury emissions dropped 30 percent from 1990-2010, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. That’s mostly because of a major decline in coal burning in Europe and North America.
Fluorescent bulbs, CFLs and LEDs have been a major part of the reduction in coal burning. Their higher efficiency means that less power is needed to produce the same amount of light.
For example, a 75-watt incandescent bulb gives off about 1100 lumens of light, whereas an 18-watt compact fluorescent bulb will give off 1,200 lumens. You’re actually getting more light, while using one quarter the energy.
A 75-watt bulb, with an average life of about 8,000 hours of use will result in 5.5 mg of mercury being released into the air. The 18-watt CFL with a similar 8,000-hour lifespan will cause only 1.2 mg of mercury to be released.
If you’ve used 12 light bulbs, you’ve released enough mercury to contaminate the entire fish population of a lake. It would take almost 60 compact fluorescent bulbs to cause the same amount of mercury to be released.
If you had the ability to prevent as much as 25 percent of the relative mercury from a fluorescent bulb from entering the environment, wouldn’t you take the proper action?
Just by making the switch from incandescent to high-efficiency lighting, you’ve knocked down your personal mercury impact by 75 percent, but now you have the opportunity to close the circle — to make your impact even smaller.
By properly disposing of your fluorescent lamps, you have the power to stop accidental release of mercury from fluorescent lamps. By finding the local recycling program for hard to recycle materials, and not putting your scent fluorescent bulbs in the trash, you are helping to keep mercury from escaping broken bulbs and seeping into the ground or vaporizing into the air.
Your local bulb recycling program will either collect and properly store unbroken bulbs to be transported to a recycling facility that specializes in hazardous waste or they will use a bulb crushing machine, like a drum-top bulb crusher.
When your recycler uses a drum-top crusher, they are compacting the spent bulbs in an environmentally sound way. The machine breaks up the bulb, releasing the mercury in a controlled manner. Special HEPA and carbon filter systems capture the mercury, preventing it from entering the environment, and making reclamation and reuse possible.
The other materials from the bulb are also captured for recycling. Metals, phosphorous and any other elements can be recycled.
You have the ability to lower your energy consumption and protect the environment by choosing to switch to and dispose of high-efficiency bulbs properly.
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