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Consumers Confused about Recycling Energy Efficient Lightbulbs
Northeast Environmental Hub
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Some states don’t make it clear how to dispose compact fluorescent lightbulbs correctly


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3:43 minutes (4.46 MB)
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In the era of “living green” more people are replacing their incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lights or CFLs.  These bulbs can last up to ten times longer and use 75 % less energy than the traditional incandescent bulb.   But the CFLs contain mercury and some states don’t make it clear how to dispose of them safely.  As part of a collaboration with Northeast stations, Lucy Nalpathanchil reports.

Compact fluorescent lights have been around since the 1980s. Back then, they were big, costly and cast an unattractive dim light. Today, the spiral-shaped bulbs are everywhere.

“We have indoor and outdoor CFLs.”

Jim Bradley, of the Home Depot in Middletown, Connecticut says CFLs come in all sizes.

“If you’re doing reading, we have the soft white 40s and 60s. If you have ceiling fans that have the little candelabras bulbs in them, we have CFLs that cover that.”

Most CFLs contain on average, enough mercury to fit on the end of a ballpoint pen. When the bulb is turned on, the mercury produces a vapor that emits ultraviolet light. Without that mercury, the CFL wouldn’t work.

Bradley says the bulbs last a long time and most people aren’t thinking how to get rid of them when they stop working.

Inside a bookstore along Middletown’s Main Street, resident, Barrie Robbins-Pianka says her burnt-out CFLs are gathering dust in her house.

“I didn’t know what to do with them or where to take them. I think I put them in a box, in a box with other things that didn’t work.”

She’s hoping to one day make it to her city recycling center to drop them off.

Robbins-Pianka is like most people who don’t know what to do with the CFLs. Connecticut, like New Hampshire and New York require businesses to recycle the bulbs, but residents are only encouraged to recycle them at their town’s waste facility or drop them off at stores with free recycling programs like Home Depot.

Standing inside a hardware store in Brattleboro, Vermont resident Carrie Walker says she has a lot of questions about the CFLs that she’s bought through the years.

“I wonder about the mercury level and is it safe?”

But Walker still buys CFLs for the lights she uses most often.

Vermont, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts have a disposal ban in place that requires residents to drop off old bulbs at hardware stores or municipal recycling centers. Maine also has a disposal ban but has gone a step further than most states. By next year, manufacturers will have to pay for the recycling of CFLs. 

Carole Cifrino of Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection says the amount of mercury in each bulb can add up.

“We expect the amount of CFLs entering the waste stream to keep increasing significantly over the next several years and we’re trying to get ahead of the curb by making sure the bulbs get recycled.”

Why haven’t all states instituted a disposal ban?  Peter Petit, an Environmental Engineer with New York’s Dept of Environmental Conservation says there’s a simple reason. 

“It would be difficult to enforce at the generator level, at the curb.” 

Noah Horowitz, a senior scientist with the Natural Resources Defense Council says states need to make it easier for residents to recycle the bulbs. But he says the efficiency of CFLs actually help reduce the amount of mercury in the environment.
“The incandescent uses four times more energy than a CFL. And where does that energy come from? It comes from, in most cases, coal burning power plants. So the incandescent is causing a whole lot more mercury to come out of a power plant than the teeny amount of mercury that’s in the CFL.”

But the old incandescent will soon be phased out. Within two years, the federal government is requiring new ones to be    30 % more efficient. And if consumers are still concerned about mercury in CFLs, a mercury-free alternative—the LED or light emitting diode will be on store shelves by 2012. 

Northeast environmental coverage is part of NPRs Local News Initiative 

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