Lamp Recycling: Lightening the Load
As most university maintenance personnel and electricians already know, nearly all lamps are considered hazardous waste and spent bulbs can no longer be tossed into dumpsters. Due to the mercury content in fluorescent, mercury vapor and other lamps and lamp fragments, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends recycling of lamps and lamp components as the proper method of disposal.
Besides federal regulations, institutions must also follow all applicable state and local regulations. For example, some states prohibit even the newer non-hazardous low-mercury lamps from being disposed of in solid waste landfills. To eliminate the liability and risk of fines due to improper disposal, universities must recycle their lamps.
"Like most universities, we made the process of bulb recycling a lot more complicated than was necessary," admits Keith Irvine, electrical supervisor at Washington & Lee University, a liberal arts college located in Lexington, Virginia. "We carefully placed all the bulbs in boxes and stored them, which took up a lot of room. When the recycling company came, we then carried the boxes out to the truck. While boxing, storing and carrying the bulbs, we continually worried about breakage."
Basically, two options exist for proper lamp disposal. One option is to keep spent lamps intact prior to pick up. This method requires considerable handling of the lamps, which drives up labor costs and wastes valuable storage space. The other option is to use a machine that safely crushes the lamps and stores the pulverized pieces in a drum, which is then picked up by a certified recycler.
"Three years ago, we started crushing the spent lamps from all 90 buildings on campus," states Irvine. "The system we use meets all federal, state and local regulations. Crushing significantly decreases the amount of our waste and eliminates our storage problems. It also reduces the amount of labor necessary to dispose of our bulbs and cuts our disposal costs."
Regulating Controlled Crushing
Controlled crushing of lamps is regulated under federal and state universal and hazardous waste regulations. Federal universal waste regulations do not authorize on-site crushing of fluorescent lamps but do allow individual states to write rules permitting it.
Under state and federal hazardous waste regulations, controlled crushing is considered treatment and facilities that treat waste are usually required to obtain a permit. Exempt from the permit requirement in most states, however, are persons who treat their wastes "within a drum, tank, or container."
"Our Bulb Eater systems fall squarely within this exemption and many states agree that the accumulation tank exemption applies to our machines," explains Scott Beierwaltes, president of Air Cycle Corporation, founded in 1978 and located near Chicago. "If your state does not allow crushing under its universal waste regulations, then you may be able to do on-site crushing under its hazardous waste regulations as a process exempt from the general permitting requirements."
"We work with state lawmakers and various associations to promote legislation authorizing facilities to crush lamps under universal waste regulations or existing state hazardous waste regulations," states Beierwaltes. "By crushing your lamps you reduce volume, minimize handling, cut costs, and create a safer work environment."
"Crushing your spent lamps makes recycling a lot easier and more economical, and the return on your investment is quite fast," says Mark Rackley, an electrician at Rollins College, in Winterpark, Florida. "Time and labor costs related to handling spent bulbs is substantially reduced."
Rackley recalls when he and his staff had to cautiously pack the spent lamps in boxes and store them until the recycling truck arrived. Then, he would haul all the boxes out and load them into the truck, worrying the entire time about breaking the bulbs and being exposed to mercury.
During that time, Rackley said storing the spent lamps also caused headaches because he stockpiled them wherever he could find room. They were stored in several different locations, such as trash rooms that were no longer used because the trash chutes were abandoned.
"Crushing our lamps has taken away all the mess and hassle, and it saves us a lot of money," states Rackley. "Now, we just take our lamps down to the bulb room and crush them instead of packaging and storing them. It saves us a lot of space, and we save on our recycling costs."
Rackley uses one machine for all 70 buildings on campus. He says it takes less than one second for the machine to crush any lamps fed into it. The crushed lamps are then safely contained in the steel 55-gallon drum, complete with locking ring and lid.
Irvine agrees that crushing is safe, easy and very cost effective when compared to the time previously spent boxing, storing and handling spent bulbs. He also likes the fact that the machine doesn?t take up any space and he no longer has to worry about breakage.
According to Beierwaltes, "Since the lamps are pre-crushed, you lower your recycling costs because part of the final recycling process has already taken place. Some recycling companies have trouble processing crushed lamps, but others offer very low crushed lamp recycling rates. Therefore, you save time packaging your lamps, you save space and you cut your recycling costs."
Words of Caution
"Any non-residential facility that throws lamps into dumpsters may think they're saving money, but they might be mistaken," cautions Beierwaltes. "Tossing bulbs in the trash can result in being held responsible for the cleanup of a remote and costly Superfund site. Due to the potential liability, any facility that recycles their lamps not only helps the environment but also their bottom line."
Beierwaltes comments that it costs roughly $1 to buy a lamp, $20 to power it, and less than 50 cents to recycle it. Universities not adhering to federal and state regulations face liability and fines, which have already been levied against violators in excess of $250,000 per fine. "Regardless of whether your state allows you to throw lamps in the trash with other non-hazardous refuse, these lamps do contain mercury," states Beierwaltes. "They can break in the dumpsters, during transportation or in the landfill. When this occurs, mercury is released into the air or groundwater, posing serious risks to surrounding communities."
When lamps are sent to landfills or incinerated, highly toxic mercury vapors are released that can travel over 200 miles. Overexposure to mercury can cause learning disabilities, impair kidney and immune function, harm the human nervous system and, in extreme cases, lead to loss of sight and hearing. Prenatal exposure can lead to various health problems, including a severe form of cerebral palsy.
Each year, an estimated 600 million fluorescent lamps are disposed of in US landfills, amounting to 30,000 pounds of mercury waste. Plus, the EPA reports that 187 incinerators nationwide emit approximately 70,000 total pounds of mercury into the environment annually. Proper packaging and recycling of spent lamps greatly reduces the mercury dilemma, creating a much safer environment.
"The Bulb Eater has worked out great for us," states Irvine, who crushes a large quantity of lineal and U-tubes. "If you've got any reasonable amount of lamps to dispose of, then crushing is definitely worth your while."