CFL Recycling in Perspective: Managing Mercury Exposure from Product Use Through Reclamation and Recycling
“Recycling” is a centuries-old activity common to all cultures. Long before recycling was called “recycling” in the USA, Boy Scouts had “newspaper drives,” “rag pickers” collected scraps of fabric and torn clothing for paper making, and the ancients borrowed stone from dilapidated structures. Recycling of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) is different how? Let’s explore.
We’ve established that modern-day environmentalists did not invent recycling. The role of the modern environmental movement, circa 1985, was in lobbying government and urging industry to create organized, efficient, safe recycling programs. The need for regulation came when waste-generation rates either produced “reclaimed materials” in volumes that surpassed what the markets demanded, or produced volumes so small that economic uses did not arise.
Example: Some economically useful gold ore has less noble metal than do electronics tossed in the scrapheap of the global economy. Yet mining companies traditionally expressed no interest because the volumes were not big enough and the “ore” too dispersed.
When the early collection of certain “waste” goods like glass bottles occurred at economically useful rates, it was due to regulation and grass roots support -perhaps we could call it “citizen demand”- rather than pure free market forces: U.S. state bottle deposits being a prominent example.
With the advent of the global economy, and scrap goods flowing across oceans from the USA, no amount of popular support or U.S.-style regulation could adequately manage recycling markets. Nor were the regulations of developed nations up to controlling any hazardous exposures that resulted. Hence, the “barges to nowhere” and e-waste debacles that have became tragically familiar in the last 20 years.
The ultimate example: The 1990s brought “ship breaking” to the world’s attention, as hundreds of WW II-era ships were scrapped on the shores of poverty stricken lands, putting unprotected workers in harm’s way, exposed to hazardous materials as they scuttled rusting ships with few of the tools and none of the protections available to the workers who originally constructed them.
Recycling operations, as ship breaking well illustrates, easily find islands of cheap labor and low safety standards.
Hazardous Materials and The Law Of Unintended Consequences
In the late 1980s, well-intended federal and state regulations led to “sham” recycling with terrible consequences. This happened after U.S. EPA exempted certain waste streams from extensive regulation if economic recycling, in fact, was to occur.
Dozens of sham recycling businesses appeared to take advantage, moving dangerous industrial scrap materials into poorly managed stockpiles: typically involving the filling up of a warehouse or back lot with hundreds or even many thousands of leaking, badly labeled drums of “recyclables.” Sham recyclers collected these drums at far lower charges than those levied by actual, regulated hazardous waste disposal businesses. The results were chemical spills and fires in nearly every state. Recycling, it turned out, in addition to needing tight, professional management, needed regulation.
Especially when a relatively novel product type is being reclaimed, recyclers have to be on guard against cross-contamination.
Example: Container polymers are permeable and can drag residual amounts of chemicals, including pesticides, into the recycle stream, even if reclaimed containers are properly washed on both the inside and outside. Industrial and consumer packaging reclamation is separately performed in the USA and other developed economies.The issue has not been dealt with as successfully and completely in poorer nations, however.
Even if the reclaimed materials are seemingly identical, some recycle streams must be kept separate, is the corollary lesson.
Applying the Lessons to CFLs
Given this short history of recycling lessons, what might we expect of the relatively new business of CFL recycling? CFL recycling programs were launched by Waste Management, Inc., in part to tackle the low levels of residual mercury associated with most commercially distributed CFLs.
Before we look at the details of Waste Management’s CFL recycling system, and where it is headed, let’s be sure we all start with a fresh, global perspective on the mercury in CFL bulbs issue.
Debunking the CFL Mercury Exposure Myth
Should you break a CFL bulb in your home, something that typically happens only very rarely, the amount of mercury that could be liberated is trivial. Sweep up the pieces, put the pieces in a plastic bag, open the windows for some better ventilation, vacuum the dust, dispose of the vacuum bag or residuals in a plastic bag, wash your hands thoroughly, and off to the recycler it goes (see below regarding the mail-in kit bag).
Ignore sky-is-falling cries about CFL bulbs and mercury. The people who complain about mercury in CFLs are like the ones who won’t wear seat belts “in case their car goes off a bridge and underwater.” One more thing on this issue and then we get on with the actual recycling programs.
The lives of U.S. citizens are exposed to relatively high levels of mercury that originates principally from the burning of coal. These levels of mercury did not exist in the Colonial era. Fish caught in the 19th century were less hazardous to human health.
The more coal your state and neighboring states consume, the higher the potential for exposure of everyone to mercury. Mercury originating from fossil fuel is in the dust on our streets and the air we breathe. It eventually accumulates in the fish we eat, moved to rivers, lakes, and oceans, and up through the food chain with the assistance of acid rain, which is also caused by coal burning (for the most part).
Mercury Exposure Is Lessened, Not Increased, by CFL Use
As more people switch from incandescent to CFL bulbs, society reduces the amount of electricity consumed, and hence reduces everyone’s exposure to mercury. Each person does his or her part by switching to CFLs. It really is that simple. If you have mercury “outrage,” the significant exposure at which to direct your attention is coal burning: certainly not CFLs.
Now then: back to our story. What exactly goes on with CFL recycling? Are the risks being properly managed? How do we know the mercury from reclaimed burned-out CFLs will stay out of the food chain?
Have we thought about potential unintended consequences? Did we learn from the lessons of the past?
As you might expect, a serious exposure potential exists with the recycling workers who handle numerous mercury-containing bulbs. All eyes on the workers and the surrounding community please.
Waste Management’s CFL Recycling Program: With Mercury Exposure Controls in Place
To get an understanding of how the recycling program works, I spoke with Mr. Mark Stennes, General Manager, WM LampTracker, Inc. LampTracker is the division of WM that recycles lamps. LampTracker has a long history of recycling commercial fluorescent bulbs: the long ones that hang over your school classroom, for example.
Mark explained the background of Waste Management’s recycling program.
First, only domestic bulbs are collected. After a slow start over the last decade, around 300 million CFLs are now being sold in the USA each year. There are still plenty of closets and lamps with incandescents waiting to be replaced. With a backdrop of electric bills increasing, continuing, strong CFL sales are projected.
Because the CFL bulbs are generally designed to last 3 to 5 years, the program is in its infancy in terms of the collection rate. Important to remember: the mercury exposure control issues kick in as people remove large numbers of burned out bulbs and ask themselves - “Now…what do I do with them?”
Waste Management offers a mail pack which consumers can obtain fromThinkGreenFromHome.com. Order the kit and this is what you’ll get.
There is a Mercury VaporLok® bag in the kit and the kit is postage paid. It holds 8 to 15 CFLs. When it’s filled, you mail the kit in. Simple. Now let’s look at the exposure controls in place for mercury where the kit is received.
The kits are sent to a single site in the Minneapolis area.
CFL mailing kits containing the burned out CFLs within the Mercury VaporLok® bags are received at the Minnesota facility, where they are opened in a controlled environment, and handled under negative air pressure. Mercury vapors are captured and filtered out of the exhaust vent system, protecting both the workers and the surrounding community.
Employees in the work areas also wear respirators and other personal protective equipment to further reduce occupational exposures.
The next processing step is to separate the glass tubes from CFL bases. The glass tubes are crushed, separating the calcium phosphate coating, upon which fluorescence occurs. Glass is recycled as glass, of course.
The mercury-containing calcium phosphate powder is collected, packaged, and sent to a nearby commercial retorting service, which distills the elemental mercury off the powdered mineral and then condenses the mercury for re-use in manufacturing.
After a period of some months, mercury vapors captured in the negative ventilation systems at LampTracker approach the filter’s saturation point for that metal. When that time approaches, the filter is changed out and the mercury-containing filter material is sent to the same nearby retorting service to reclaim the elemental mercury. At this point, the mercury is a commercial product, suitable for making more CFL bulbs.
Mark said he thought that European Union nations were generally on par or ahead of the USA in providing CFL recycling programs, and that Canada also has them underway.
That leaves a whole wide world of developing nations to start buying and eventually recycling CFLs.