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Bulb Recycling, Step by Step

Maintenance Solutions

Recycling is a common method for reducing waste disposal. Recycling diverts waste from the landfill, reducing waste disposal costs and, in some instances, generating revenue from the sale of recyclable materials. Recycling also provides an opportunity to be a good steward of the environment.

Recycling generally is not more work than a facility’s current waste-disposal practices. Rather, it is just different. With time and effort, most facilities can achieve at least a 10 percent recycling rate, while many organizations achieve a 25 percent or more recycling rate.

The diverse operations of most facilities generate a variety of recyclable materials. Most often, these materials are simply managed as non-hazardous solid waste. But a few recyclable materials are considered universal wastes by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and require special handling.

Spotlight on lamps
Lamp recycling is receiving increasing attention in all types of facilities because of the hazardous materials involved, as well as the complex regulations with which organizations must comply. Many facilities, including hospitals, operate all day, every day, throughout the year. Fluorescent lamps can help facilities significantly reduce their energy use because they use one-quarter of the energy of incandescent lamps and last up to 10 times longer.

But fluorescent lamps contain mercury, and when broken or improperly disposed of, they can release mercury into the air, water and soil, creating a threat to human health and the environment.

While fluorescent lamps offer tremendous environmental advantages through energy savings, the disposal of used fluorescent lighting raises serious environmental concerns. Recycling spent mercury-containing lamps offers an environmentally sound alternative to expensive hazardous waste disposal. Recycling used fluorescent lamps is a good way to eliminate mercury emissions, as well as reduce waste and other toxic material disposal. Managers can begin or refine the process by following these 9 steps.

1. Assess the facility
Gathering the appropriate information will help managers measure dollar savings over time from a recycling program. Answers to the following questions will help assess the situation:
• How many fluorescent lamps are in your facility? Where are they located?
• How often do you relamp?
• How many fluorescent lamps are you disposing of each month? Each year?
• What types of fluorescent lamps do you buy? Are they energy-efficient lamps?
• How are spent lamps handled and stored?
• Do all employees know what to do if a fluorescent lamp burns out or breaks?
• Is the organization in compliance with all hazardous-waste regulations?

2. Develop a purchasing plan
Ideally, managers should purchase lamps that are both energy-efficient and have low mercury content. It is important to buy high-efficiency bulbs that offer longer lamp life because they do not need to be replaced as often, save labor and recycling costs, and use less energy.

Energy efficiency is essential not only in saving energy costs but also because most facilities derive their electric power from coal-fired power plants, which are the leading source of mercury to air.

3. Select a recycler
More than 40 lamp-recycling companies operate in the United States. Managers can audit the vendor to make sure their permits, recycling technologies, transportation operations, and bookkeeping practices meet all state and federal regulations, as well as fit the organization’s lamp recycling needs.

Ask about the processes the recycler uses to reclaim the mercury and whether it reclaims the mercury on site or ships it to another contractor for processing. Some recyclers charge extra if they ship it off site. Ask about protocol for broken lamps. They often are more expensive to manage and require special handling

Prices vary, depending on quantities and whether transportation is included. Compare prices, and call several different recyclers to get price estimates. Some recyclers also manage other universal wastes, such as batteries. Ask the vendors about any other services they provide. 

4. Manage used lamps
Managers should designate an area within the facility to store lamps. Bigger facilities might need more than one location for easier access. Make sure employees know whom to call if they see that a lamp is burned out.

Consider relamping areas in bulk. Rather than replacing individual lamps when they fail, relamp entire rooms or floors at the same time. This tactic will permit more efficient collection and shipping of lamps to a recycling facility. But make sure the organization is getting the maximum amount of life from the lamps in the area before relamping.

5. Safely handle spent lamps
Workers can prevent exposure, save money disposing of higher-cost broken lamps, and prevent breakage by storing lamps safely. Among the storage options:

• Put used lamps in original boxes, with no packing material. Make sure to completely seal the box to prevent leaks from bulb breakage. When combining used lamps with new ones, mark the used with a piece of tape or a permanent marker, and make sure tape or a marker is located next to the receptacle.
• Buy specially made lamp containers for storing used lamps. These containers often are reusable and durable, and they won’t tip over easily. Lamp recyclers might have a container that they like to use to make shipping or pick-up easier.

Also, workers should never leave spent lamps unattended or in a compromising position, such as leaning against a wall or in an area where they can be easily broken. They shouldn’t tape lamps together, and they should store boxes and containers in a dry place. If possible, they should stack boxes and containers neatly on pallets and shrink-wrap them. Clearly identify containers of used lamps. For example, label the container “Used fluorescent lamps for recycling” and include the accumulation start date.

Some states still allow certain low-mercury fluorescent lamps to be landfilled, but managers should avoid this practice, as even small amounts of mercury can have a significant impact. All mercury-containing fluorescent lamps should be sent for recycling.

6. Properly manage broken lamps
Managers will need to create procedures for reporting and managing broken lamps. Workers should protect lamps from breakage by removing lamps carefully and storing used lamps in a location and manner that will prevent breakage. Some lamp recyclers will supply boxes for storage.

Never break or crush lamps to consolidate because the action will release mercury. If lamps are accidentally broken, workers should isolate the area and call for proper clean-up. Keep broken lamps in a secure location away from occupants and staff, separate from the intact tubes. Broken tubes can be recycled, so do not throw them in the trash.

For more information on handling tube breakages, use the resources at www.epa.gov.

7. Get lamps to the recycler
To recycle lamps, managers have several options. Small-quantity generators might actually mail in lamps, but some facilities generate a larger quantity than is practical for mailing. Most recyclers that accept mail-in lamps will provide 4- or 8-foot containers to send via UPS.

Transporting lamps in states that have adopted the Universal Waste Rule requires a bill of lading and a label with ”Used Lamps” on the outside of the container.

For more information on the Universal Waste Rule, refer to 40 CFR 273 and www.epa.gov/epaoswer/hazwaste/id/univwast/index.htm.

8. Educate employees
Managers need to inform employees about the dangers of mercury and of the decision to recycle all fluorescent lamps. This effort is essential in reducing mercury-containing waste in a facility and contributes to efforts to virtually eliminate mercury-containing waste.

All employees and contractors should be properly educated and trained to handle and dispose of or recycle lamps to minimize accidental disposal into the landfill or hazardous materials waste stream.

9. Record and track data
The best way to gauge the success of a lamp recycling program is to track how many containers are shipped for recycling and how many lamps are in each container.

Each month, ask for paperwork from the recycler to determine the number of lamps they reclaimed, the amount of mercury they reclaimed and how much it costs. Use this data to demonstrate good compliance and a successful program to top management.

Success in lamp recycling is simple to achieve. If an organization is recycling all of its lamps, it is successfully preventing mercury from entering into and damaging the environment and avoiding the costs and hassle of hazardous-waste rules and regulations.

Information for this article was provided by Hospitals for a Health Environment, www.h2e-online.org.

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