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Recycling CFLs Improves, but Mercury-Free LEDs May Win Out

Recycling CFLs Improves, but Mercury-Free LEDs May Win Out

A recycler of the popular, mercury-filled fluorescent bulbs has hit a milestone, but the group admits the rapid acceptance of LED lighting may hinder current reuse programs.

LightRecycle Washington said recently that it has recycled one million fluorescent tubes, compact florescent light bulbs (CFLs) and other mercury-containing lights since it began a statewide free collection program in January 2015. The group, run by the non-profit PCA Product Stewardship firm out of Canada, is the only entity licensed by the Washington Department of Ecology to collect the bulbs in the free program.

Peter Thermos, program manager at LightRecycle, says it’s been difficult to get people to understand that the bulbs are a household hazard unless disposed of correctly. CFLs each contain about 4 mg of mercury. According to a LightRecycle survey conducted last year, only about half the people in the state of Washington know the bulbs are toxic. Recycling programs are a safe way to handle CFLs, he says.

“When properly recycled, the CFLs and tubes are crushed so that the phosphorous powder is separated from the glass,” Thermos says. “About half of the mercury stays in the powder, while the other half turns into a gas and is sucked into big filters. The mercury is a commodity, it can be reused, and so is the glass, typically sent as fill for concrete.”

While long-lasting florescent tubes have been around for decades, smaller lamp-sized bulbs have only recently seen an increase in household use due to a government-sponsored phase-out of incandescent bulbs that began in 2007. Originally two-to-three times as expensive as incandescent bulbs, the lamp-sized CFLs have dropped in price and are now in many homes across the country.

Even though the CFLs are 100 percent recyclable, there’s not been a nationwide push to explain how to dispose of the bulbs. Only a handful of states have laws that require recycling of CFLs. Minnesota’s energy company Minnesota Power has a free program for CFLs (but not tubes) and Chicago takes the bulbs as part of its hazardous waste collection. Home Depot has had a free recycling program since 2008, and other hardware stores such as Lowe’s and Menards have followed suit – but the efforts are not widely publicized. There are recycling boxes-by-mail programs, but these typically have a shipping fee.

However, Thermos says it may not make sense for more states to try to increase awareness for the recycling programs. Though CFLs now dominate the store shelves, they may just as quickly be also phased out in favor of LED bulbs, which are just as energy efficient, but don’t contain toxic materials. Like the CFL roll-out eight years ago, LED bulbs are currently cost-prohibitive for the average consumer to buy in bulk, but companies looking to “go green” are gaining sustainability points by installing all-LED lighting.

There’s other signs that CFLs are already on their way out. The government-sponsored Energy Star program rolled out rules this year, to take effect in 2017, that favor LEDs over CFLs. Energy giant GE publicly announced in February that it will no longer manufacture CFLs, and, literally, professed its love for LED as the future of lighting. The company predicts that more than 50 percent of homes will have predominantly LED lighting in just four years, while CFLs will decline.

Thermos says LED’s rise could harm CFL recycling, as costs to collect the florescent bulbs are currently subsidized by the sales of the products. “LED lights came on faster than we expected,” he says. “If the LED takeover continues to increase, we could lose a lot of funding. There’s ways to deal with it, such as manufacturers paying more in subsidies, but it could get tricky. It will definitely be an adjustment for the industry.”

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