Crushing Fluorescent Bulbs: Saving the Environment While Saving Money 

Facilities everywhere are turning to crushing lamps with Bulb Eater for their bulb disposal needs. Crushing saves money, time, and space over other bulb recycling solutions. For more information about the Bulb Eater click here.

The Mercury Problem
While compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are gradually finding their way into homes, fluorescent lighting has long been the choice of school and hospital facilities that want to cut energy costs and reduce their impact on the environment. The fluorescent switch makes perfect sense: changing to fluorescent lighting cuts energy usage for buildings by up to 75%, saving money and cutting pollution from power plant carbon emissions.

But there is a small tradeoff for the energy and cost savings resulting from fluorescent lighting. Inside each fluorescent bulb there is a small amount of mercury, a toxic element that can adversely affect human and environmental health if released into the air or water table. When fluorescent bulbs are in use they are perfectly safe- no mercury is released when the lights are on or off in a building. The risk for mercury pollution starts when the bulbs break, and this usually happens during their disposal. Whether it is when the bulbs are smashed in a dumpster or later when they break at the landfill, the mercury eventually finds its way into the environment. The vapors can stay in and around a facility after breakage for quite some time, getting breathed in by employees or others who are in the building. If bulbs are broken in a landfill the surrounding groundwater and land can be contaminated, harming all who come in contact with it. Experts estimate that around 500 million lamps are sent to landfills each year, resulting in more than 30,000 pounds of mercury being released. Additionally, lamp breakage itself releases up to one ton of mercury vapor into the atmosphere each year.

The negative effects that mercury has on people and the environment are manifold, but here are just a few facts: as a potent neurotoxin, mercury exposure can adversely affect the brain, kidneys, and liver in humans and can be a source of developmental problems for children. When introduced into the environment, mercury can contaminate large areas of land and water, accumulating in wildlife (usually fish), which in turn are eaten by humans. Mercury is so potent that just one gram of it from the atmosphere can contaminate a 20-acre lake for one year.

Frustrating Solutions
Needless to say, the potential effect of millions of mercury-containing bulbs being improperly disposed of by school and hospital facilities is a harrowing prospect. Fortunately, once facilities started learning about the hazards resulting from throwing lamps away in the trash, most started looking for a safer method of disposal. Facilities also discovered that it wasn’t that expensive to recycle: over the lifetime of a lamp, the cost of recycling is less than 1% of the total cost of ownership. Recycling lamps became the accepted disposal method, as the mercury could be safely removed by machinery at specialized recycling centers. Additionally, government regulations were soon put in place in many states to require facilities to dispose of their bulbs through certified recyclers.

If they do recycle their bulbs, most facilities do so by boxing them up and arranging for a pickup by the recycler that they use. Employees collect bulbs and stack them in boxes, and once the pile gets big enough they call to get them picked up. Boxing bulbs and ordering recycling pickups is quite common, but facility staff can quickly get frustrated with this process as it consumes valuable employee time and floor space. Sheela Backen, Integrated Solid Waste Program Manager at Colorado State University, oversaw a complex and expensive method of bulb recycling. Her staff would pack lamps into their original cartons and load them onto a truck for transport back to a recycling facility. "That method presented a lot of problems," Backen says. "We couldn't get people to make sure the cartons were full, taped and marked with the date. When the truck was coming to pick them up, we would have anywhere from six to eight people filling boxes, taping them back up, and then loading this truck. It was not cost-effective at all."

Lamp Crushing: A Smart Alternative
It’s troubling that facilities trying to do the right thing by recycling their bulbs get stuck with inefficient and expensive pickups (not to mention piles of boxes spent lamps sitting around their warehouse). However, an alternative method of bulb disposal has emerged that rewards facilities and their staff with low costs, increased efficiency, space savings, and environmental benefits.

This method is lamp crushing, which is actually as simple as it sounds. Once they reach the end of their life, lamps are fed into a machine that breaks them down into tiny pieces. Many lamp crushers also have a filter that is used to capture mercury vapors from the broken tubes and some remove the mercury vapors in each lamp with a three-stage HEPA filtering process. After crushing, the material is picked up by a recycler for further processing. The savings from crushing lamps comes from the reduced cost in their pickup and transportation compared to an intact lamp pickup: crushed lamps take up a smaller amount of space during transport, and since they have already been processed, the cost of recycling the crushed material is much lower.

Crushing lamps offers facilities multiple benefits. A facility can reduce labor by 20 hours per 1,000 lamps vs. boxing up lamps for pickup. Secondly, facilities can save up to 50% on recycling costs when they schedule a bulk recycling pickup for their crushed lamps. Finally, since hundreds of lamps fit into one drum, facilities can minimize their spent lamp storage space.. No more piles of boxed up bulbs lying around!

Sheela Backen describes her facility’s experience with the Bulb Eater, a popular lamp crusher: "The bulbs are brought to a specific location. I send one person over there for a couple hours a week to crush the tubes. It's very quick and efficient, and I don't have to waste so much time trying to load a truck."

Crushing bulbs can even get a little addictive for some facility staff. Brian Weeks of Lakeland Regional Medical Center saw that his employees were getting hooked on the whole idea: “We like it so much, my guys are running around looking for spare tubes to crush. We've already reorganized the warehouse and it couldn't have been neater or cleaner”.

Seeing Green Results
Lamp crushing has helped facilities save money, space, and time over other lamp disposal methods. However, some facilities began to want to better understand their impact on the environment crushing their bulbs. so one manufacturer responded by introducing online recycling reports, an innovative tool that users could use to see how much waste they had recycled. Every time users filled up a drum with crushed lamps and had it shipped off, they could see their progress on a special web report that detailed the exact amount they recycled. The reports also tracked progress over time, so a facility could see exactly how much waste they recycled from month to month or year to year. This became a useful tool not only for internal review, but also for green marketing campaigns. Facilities could now report on their green progress with tangible data, showing exactly what they were doing to become environmentally friendly; schools could report their green steps forward to students, school boards, and parents, while hospitals could impress shareholders, patients, and employees.

However, impressing parents and patients means nothing if regulators aren’t convinced of a school or hospital’s green progress. Many recycling companies are issuing certificates of recycling to facilities that crush their bulbs. These official documents give official proof that a facility is doing their part to keep mercury out of the environment. Certificates of recycling can be shown to state or federal EPA officials, and can help a facility avoid steep fines and the resultant costly negative publicity.

Everyone that recycles their fluorescent bulbs is doing their part to reduce the burden of mercury on the environment. People crushing their lamps with machines all over the world are helping the environment while also saving money, time, and space for their facilities. Consider checking out lamp crushers if you are interested in keeping the environment healthy while making life a little easier for your facility.


Click here for more information on the Bulb Eater.