CFL Recycling

Posted May 05, 2009, at 5:20 p.m.

Because they use less electricity and last for years, compact fluorescent light bulbs reduce pollution and save money. Some were leery of the bulbs, however, because they contain mercury and can’t simply be thrown in the trash. That problem has been minimized in Maine, with the country’s first statewide recycling program.

The recycling system is funded through a small surcharge on electric bills. This funding, administered through Efficiency Maine, is meant to encourage investments in energy efficiency, not waste handling. So, as the volume of CFLs used in Maine increases, a new funding mechanism for their disposal is necessary.

LD 973 would set up a CFL recycling program modeled on the state’s electronic waste law, which is financed and run by manufacturers. Although the cost will be passed on to consumers, this is an appropriate model.

Currently, CFLs can be dropped off at transfer stations, although some charge $1 per bulb to dispose of them. The bulbs can also be taken to hardware and home supply stores at no cost. The bulbs are packaged and sent to a recycler, with the cost covered by Efficiency Maine through a surcharge on electric bills. This diverts money away from other potential energy efficiency efforts.

Under LD 973, the bulbs could still be collected at retail stores and transfer stations, but the cost of handling them would be covered by bulb makers. The Public Utilities Commission estimates it cost 70 cents to recycle a bulb. Because the bulbs typically last for years, manufacturers will collect many times the recycling cost in sales before a large volume of CFLs need to be recycled.

Compact fluorescent bulbs contain a small amount of mercury, approximately 4 milligrams. The mercury is necessary to create the charge that makes the bulb glow. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, a coal-fired power plant emits 10 milligrams of mercury to produce the electricity to power an incandescent bulb. Lighting a CFL for the same amount of time results in 2.4 milligrams of mercury emissions. So converting to CFLs will reduce emissions of mercury, a neurotoxin, as well as other pollutants such as carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. Replacing a single incandescent bulb with a CFL can keep half a ton of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere.

Under Maine’s electronic waste, or e-waste, law, which has been in effect for three years, people can take their old computers, televisions, cell phones and other electronic devices to one of dozens of collection sites, often their local transfer station. The more than 180 manufacturers who participate in the program pay to have the electronics taken away and the dangerous materials inside properly disposed of.

Encouraging consolidation of consumer-product recycling, rather than requiring people to figure out where to take what, should be part of any reform of these programs.

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