From: Allyson Wendt, BuildingGreen, More from this Affiliate
Published September 7, 2007 04:44 PM

Newer Fluorescents Have Less Mercury, But Recycling Continues to Lag

When Philips Lighting Company first introduced its Alto technology in 1995, the average amount of mercury in a four-foot (1.2 m) T-8 Alto fluorescent lamp was 14 mg. By encapsulating the mercury and creating a chemical barrier coating to prevent absorption of the mercury by the phosphor coating, Philips was able to lower the amount of mercury in its Alto lamps to 3.5 milligrams (mg). In 2007, Philips introduced the Alto II line with 1.7 mg of mercury per four-foot lamp (see Philips Introduces Lower Mercury Fluorescent Lamp).


All fluorescent lamps contain mercury, as they work by passing an arc of electricity through mercury vapor, which gives off ultraviolet light, exciting a phosphor coating inside the lamp that in turn produces visible light. That mercury poses a disposal problem, however, as it is a powerful neurotoxin and can escape from a broken lamp or leach into groundwater from landfilled lamps. Since we published a feature article on fluorescent lamp disposal ten years ago, the industry has taken great strides to reduce the amount of mercury in fluorescent lamps (see EBN Vol. 6, No. 9). However, recycling rates continue to lag, despite efforts to increase them.


The lower amount of mercury in Philips’ lamps caused a few problems at first: according to Jennifer Dolin, environmental marketing manager at another low-mercury lamp manufacturer, Osram Sylvania, lamps were subject to “premature end-life blackening,” when most of the mercury was absorbed before the end of the lamp’s life, creating pink light. In a 2002 EBN article, some experts were still reporting shortened life in low-mercury lamps, but an investigation by an environmental group found no evidence of the phenomenon (see EBN Vol. 11, No. 6).


Despite the early difficulties, other companies soon followed Philips’ lead. “There are benefits to having another company go first,” said Dolin, “because they get all the kinks worked out.” Osram Sylvania introduced an environmental label for its lamps, EcoLogic, in 2006, and lowered the mercury in its Octron T-8 lamps to 3.5 mg. A third major manufacturer, GE Lighting, also worked to lower mercury in its lamps. According to environmental marketing manager Joe Howley, the company’s Ecolux T-8 lamps are “under the industry average” of 8.3 mg of mercury per lamp. This number comes from a 2001 survey performed by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association; since Osram Sylvania introduced their low-mercury lamps in 2006, however, the industry average may have dropped. “You have to balance the performance needs of the lamp with the needs of the environment,” Howley said of efforts to lower mercury content, apparently justifying higher mercury levels than those achieved by Philips and Osram Sylvania.


Both Dolin and Howley told EBN that their companies are working to lower the mercury content of fluorescent lamps; according to Dolin, 1.7 mg per lamp is believed to be the lowest amount of mercury technically feasible.


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While manufacturers have worked to lower the mercury content of fluorescent lamps, they and other industry groups have been working to raise recycling rates, which hover around 25% despite regulations requiring recycling from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). According to Paul Abernathy, executive director of the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers (ALMR), this low rate is due to several loopholes in recycling regulations. One loophole, Abernathy told EBN, is that lamps passing the EPA’s Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) are not considered hazardous waste and therefore do not need to be recycled; all three manufacturers’ low-mercury lines pass this test. The second loophole is that any company, including small businesses of all sorts, producing less than 220 pounds (100 kg) of hazardous waste per month (equivalent to several hundred fluorescent lamps) are not required to recycle their lamps. Homeowners are also exempt from recycling fluorescent lamps. ALMR is working with several legislators to close these loopholes, said Abernathy.


Meanwhile, the Product Stewardship Institute (PSI) is working with manufacturers, retailers, and government agencies to create a pilot recycling program for fluorescent lamps, including compact fluorescent lamps, and thermostats. Aimed primarily at consumers and small business owners, the program will begin in October 2007 at 25 retail locations in Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, and Utah. Although hopeful about the results of the program, Scott Cassel, executive director of PSI, agreed with Abernathy that regulations are needed to increase recycling rates. “There need to be disposal bans,” he said, “and enforcement of those bans.” One such ban exists in California, where all fluorescent lamps are considered hazardous waste and must be recycled.


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