Flipping the Switch

Assessing household compact fluorescent light recycling in Maine.

Increasing energy costs coupled with decreasing retail prices has brought the use of household compact fluorescent lights (CFL) into the mainstream. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 397 million CFLs were shipped in 2007 — a 1,790 percent increase from 2000. Clearly, the use of CFLs in American homes has been a success. However, the recycling of spent household CFLs has been a failure.

While an accurate household recycling rate is not known, two studies have estimated the rate to be between 2 and 6.7 percent. If these estimates are accurate, most intact CFLs become municipal solid waste (MSW).

Discarded CFLs are subject to breakage and compaction in trash receptacles, trucks and at transfer stations or disposal facilities. Of the CFLs that survive this adventure intact, most will be landfilled or incinerated. The significance of the low recycling rate is the potential public and environmental health effects of the collective release of the small amount of mercury in each discarded CFL. For example, using the mean amount of 5 milligrams per CFL, the total amount of mercury contained in the 2007 shipments of CFLs alone is 4,376 pounds.

In Maine, 67 percent of homes now use at least one CFL; the mean number of CFLs in these homes is seven. The adoption of CFLs has been spearheaded by Efficiency Maine, a program facilitated by the state's Public Utilities Commission that consists of a statewide education campaign and coupons for CFL purchases. As a result, in 2008, Efficiency Maine announced the sale of its one millionth CFL (for a state with a population of 1.31 million) through its coupon program.

Environmental mercury in Maine has been a public and legislative issue. Numerous state laws have banned the disposal and/or sale of mercury-containing thermometers, switches, batteries and thermostats. Of particular relevance is the state disposal ban on household CFLs. This means that CFLs must be recycled. Television ads, fliers and messages on in-store coupons tout the need to recycle CFLs.

In 2007, Efficiency Maine created a free household CFL recycling program through a partnership with 204 retail stores. But in the program's two and a half years of operation, only 8,800 CFLs have been collected and recycled. Municipal transfer stations in Maine also accept CFLs for a fee. These facilities do not track household CFLs, but the numbers are thought to be very low. So in spite of the CFL disposal ban, continuing statewide education efforts and a free CFL recycling program, evidence suggests that the household recycling rate in Maine remains low. Why?

An online survey was conducted in the spring of 2009. Sampling was limited to Maine residents 18 years or older who currently use at least one CFL. Participants were self-selected. Comparing survey respondents to state demographics, the sample was biased toward registered Democrats and higher education attainment. Regardless, the results are valid, and these demographics still provide a valuable indicator of CFL recycling behavior as found by other studies.

According to the survey, 28.9 percent of respondents disposed of CFLs as trash, 16.2 percent did not know what they did with their CFLs, and 7.6 percent placed them into storage.

Interestingly, 76.8 percent knew CFLs contained mercury. Regarding recycling, 23.5 percent stated they have recycled CFLs, and 21.6 percent said they have not yet had a spent CFL. As discussed above, given the survey demographics, this 23.5 percent recycling rate is likely too high (including the CFL recycling actions of non-represented Maine residents surely would decrease the rate).

In spite of the state ban, 72.9 percent stated they did not know that CFLs are required to be recycled. Of the respondents who knew about the recycling requirement, 17.2 percent of them stated they still disposed of CFLs as trash. When all respondents were asked whether they knew where they could recycle their CFLs, 64.2 percent said no.

Regarding the purchase of new CFLs, 73 percent stated they purchased most of their CFLs at large home improvement, warehouse, mass merchandise or grocery stores, whereas 17.1 percent purchased them at a local hardware store, which has been the primary location (44 percent of all participating stores) for the free CFL recycling program. Only 12.9 percent stated that they brought spent CFLs back to the store where they were purchased. The most cited factors influencing the purchase of new CFLs were conserving energy (59.6 percent) and long-term cost savings (30.1 percent). When asked which factors would prompt respondents to recycle CFLs, the three most cited answers were environmental responsibility (38.4 percent), free recycling (21.9 percent) and convenience (22.2 percent).

Collectively, these and other survey responses yield two specific conclusions. First, lack of knowledge is a primary factor in low recycling participation. Respondents consistently showed they did not know: (1) specific locations for recycling, (2) about Maine's requirement to recycle CFLs and (3) that CFL recycling can be free. Given that the respondents indicated a willingness to recycle out of a sense of environmental responsibility, targeted education on the need and location to recycle can increase the rate.

Second, as with many recycling programs, a dominant factor in participation is convenience. There are only two primary locations where CFLs can be recycled: municipal transfer stations and 204 participating retail stores. In areas served by curbside pick-up, residents would have to make a special trip to the transfer station to recycle a CFL for a fee, or locate a participating store for free CFL recycling. For most, this too would be a special trip as only 17.1 percent stated that they purchased CFLs at a local hardware store compared to larger chain/box stores. Analyzing the location of the 204 participating stores raises two more problems. First, only 113 of the state's nearly 500 municipalities are served by a participating store. Second, the population centers in the state are under-represented, as the 10 cities with the highest populations, representing 20.4 percent of the state's population, collectively have only 24, or 11.7 percent, of the participating stores.

In June 2009, Maine adopted the nation's first law that requires CFL bulb manufacturers to share the costs and responsibility for recycling mercury-containing CFLs through a producer-financed collection and recycling program, which must include an education component.

Given the results of the survey, efforts to increase the CFL recycling rate need to focus on greater convenience and targeted education. CFL collection locations should be expanded specifically to include more home improvement, warehouse, grocery and mass merchandise stores, which most CFL purchasers are likely to visit on a routine basis. In addition, the locations should be expanded in larger population centers. Free CFL collection should be available at every MSW transfer station. Finally, targeted education should focus should not only on the need to recycle, but also on the locations for free CFL drop-off.

Factors that Would Prompt CFL Recycling (N=503)
Rebate/Cost Incentive 8.5%
Environmental Responsibility 38.4%
Proximity to Recycling Center 5.9%
Free Recycling 21.9%
Convenience 22.2%
Other 3.2%
Source: Travis P. Wagner 2009

Travis P. Wagner is an associate professor of environmental science and policy at the University of Southern Maine's Gorham Campus. Dr. Wagner specializes in researching universal and solid waste programs and policies in the United States and Canada and has authored numerous books and papers on hazardous waste, e-waste, MSW and pollution.

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