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Mercury in Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs
These days, the environmentally-conscious are excited about energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs – and rightfully so. Compact fluorescents that have earned the US government's energy star use, on average, 75% less energy than regular incandescent light bulbs, and they last up to ten times longer. What's more, each light bulb should save consumers about $30 over the life of the light bulb – making their price, which in general is much higher than an old-fashioned incandescent bulb, pay off in the end.
But there's one small problem with compact fluorescents: each bulb contains a few milligrams of mercury – the ultra-poisonous heavy metal that no one should handle. Is mercury the “Achilles' Heel” of the compact fluorescent? Should promoters of green energy really endorse these light bulbs?
Due to the comparatively high amounts of mercury, once the compact fluorescents do burn out (in six years or so), it's important to recycle them properly so that the average of four milligrams of mercury do not work their way into the environment. Even though four milligrams of mercury is not much, imagine every person around the country improperly disposing of their mercury-containing light bulbs. Over time, the improper disposal of these bulbs is sure to adversely affect the environment.
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Recycling Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs
It's actually not just the compact fluorescents that should be recycled; technically, those standard office building fluorescent tubes also contain mercury and should be recycled. In addition to regular and compact fluorescents, high intensity discharge bulbs, also known as HID bulbs (including metal halide and high-pressure sodium bulbs), also contain mercury and must be handled with care.
Right now, however, there's a bit of a shortage when it comes to sites where these light bulbs can be recycled. Typicall state government websites will give addresses of hazardous waste disposal locations, but finding a site within easy driving distance from home is not simple. Right now only those very dedicated to environmental causes will make the effort to recycle their light bulbs.
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Businesses Are Getting in on the Act
Luckily, while state-run recycling programs for these light bulbs are scarce – due to an rapid increase in the use of mercury-containing bulbs without a corresponding increase in the state resources to deal with their disposal – a few environmentally-conscious businesses are trying to help out the government (and their public image) by becoming disposal sites for these light bulbs. The Swedish company, IKEA, was the first to get in on the act. At IKEA stores, people can bring their compact fluorescents for free recycling.
Atlanta-based Home Depot, another major retailer of compact fluorescents, is also starting a compact fluorescent recycling program. Consumers can bring in their unbroken bulbs in a plastic bag and drop them into Home Depot's orange collection bins. This is a new program for The Home Depot, having just started in June 2008, but by October 2008, they had outfitted all their retail stores with these recycling collection points.
According to a press release by The Home Depot, over 75% of American households are located within ten miles of a Home Depot store. With the current pressure on businesses to improve eco-friendly policies, it is likely that other big retailers of compact fluorescents will join pioneers like The Home Depot and IKEA in offering ways for their customers to recycle their bulbs.
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Do It Yourself Recycling (Sort Of)
For those who don't live close to IKEA, Home Depot, or any state operated recycling site, you can buy recycling kits from a variety of sources. One doesn't exactly recycle the bulb themselves – this would take great expertise and expensive equipment. Rather, spent bulbs are sealed in plastic disposal bags, and the disposal bags are then placed into a sealable pail, which holds up to thirty compact fluorescents. (Considering that each compact fluorescent lasts about five to seven years, accumulating thirty of the bulbs should take some time.) With a pre-paid shipping label slapped onto the pail, all the customer has to do is call Fed Ex and the pail is picked up. A few days later, to ease their peace of mind, the customer receives a certificate in the mail verifying that the bulbs were received and properly disposed of.
The whole process is rather expensive, but ethically it sure beats polluting a lake for hundreds or even thousands of years due to being too lazy to properly dispose of the bulb!
Sources and Further Reading
Energy Star. “Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs for Consumers.”
Environmental Protection Agency. “Mercury-Containing Light Bulb (Lamp) Basic Information.”
The Home Depot. “The Home Depot Launches CFL Recycling Program.”