When the Lights Go Out in Las Vegas, Hazardous Waste Disappears

LAS VEGAS—An innovative recycling program has made one of this city’s most popular meeting places a green oasis by shipping out the toxic remains of spent light bulbs.

LVCVAThe Las Vegas Convention & Visitors Authority (LVCVA) was founded to strengthen the area’s convention business and eliminate a troubling economic problem: the cyclical nature of the tourism industry. But the LVCVA doesn’t just market this city’s gambling and pleasure palaces. It operates the Cashman Center as well as the Las Vegas Convention Center, which totals 3.5 million square feet of meeting rooms and exhibition space.

How many light bulbs does it take to illuminate such an emporium? More than electrical supervisor Joe Toro cares to count. Seven years ago Toro took it upon himself to find a method for disposing the thousands of fluorescent light bulbs he and his six-member crew replace each year. He could no longer tolerate the existing recycling plan: store spent bulbs in cardboard boxes (30 or so per container), and then wait for them to be hauled away by various trucking services.

The boxes took up valuable storage space and occasionally they would tumble, causing bulb breakage. This created even greater problems: The hauler refused to remove broken bulbs. Why? They contain mercury, which is linked to serious health issues, such as blurred vision, severe convulsions, and birth defects. As a result, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulates fluorescent lamps and sets strict guidelines for their disposal.

“We had too many problems with boxes being stored, or lamps that don’t fit in boxes, or that fall off the back of the truck,” Toro said. “Too much hassle and too much money for the service we were getting.”

Gambling on Green

Toro began searching online for an on-site solution after a colleague recommended a lamp-crushing system. It wasn’t long before Toro was convinced that the Bulb Eater® developed by Air Cycle Corp. of Broadview, Illinois, was the answer. “I realized that this was an environmentally-friendly piece of equipment that would speed up production about 500 percent compared to the other way,” Toro said. “It’s been well worth it.”

Bulb EaterLVCVA now has two Bulb Eater® machines at the Las Vegas Convention Center, where Toro and his crew do the majority of lamp crushing. This OSHA- and EPA-compliant device crushes more than 1,000 fluorescent lamps (amount depends on size of lamps) and packs them into a 55-gallon drum. The process is fully enclosed and filtered, so that the glass, aluminum and harmful vapors are contained. When full, the drums are picked up and transported to an EPA-approved lamp recycling facility—all arranged by Air Cycle. No muss, no fuss.

When Toro requested funding for the lamp crushers, no one was forcing him to comply with anything but common sense. “We were never told to do it,” he said. “This was a voluntary process that I started. I just took this upon myself. It’s not right to throw lamps into the landfill. Environmentally, recycling is the right thing to do. We want to look good in the public eye. It was a smart choice.”

Very smart and prescient, too. Toro provided a safe environment for employees and guests, and when the EPA finally visited, the LVCVA already could boast of a green track record. In this day and age, anything less than EPA compliance can cause serious trouble for corporations and other businesses.

For example, the discovery of illegal dumping habits may cause the EPA to slap a company with penalty fees in excess of $250,000. Even worse, a delinquent firm could be forced to clean up a remote and costly Superfund site. And then there is the matter of public perception. A company that defiles the environment is not a good neighbor—or host—and such a revelation could lead to a public relations disaster. Not the kind of attention craved by LVCVA, which has an annual budget of $284 million for fiscal year 2008 and 574 authorized employment positions.

Savings and Upgrades

Aside from staving off environmental concerns, the Air Cycle Corp. Bulb Eater® systems have saved LVCVA a lot of time and money. The Bulb Eater® 55-gallon drum, which Toro estimates can hold at least 1,000 crushed lamps, can be operated by one crew member. This is a big improvement over the previous method of storing lamps in boxes, a process that demanded cooperation from the whole staff. “It was way too cumbersome,” Toro said.

Also, the old system frustrated Toro because he was paying two fees: slightly less than $1 per new lamp, and up to $3 to dispose of spent lamps. The Bulb Eater® has slashed recycling costs to about $.30 cents per lamp. Obviously, the machines quickly paid for themselves, Toro said.

As a result, LVCVA has approved Toro’s request to upgrade the machines in 2008. The new Premium Bulb Eater® not only crushes spent fluorescent lamps of any length into 100 percent recyclable material, but also captures more than 99.99 percent of the vapors released. The three-stage filtering process removes hazardous particulates and gases, and can now hold up to 1,350 fluorescent lamps. Also, a new safety control panel has also been added, giving the operator added security by monitoring seven aspects of the machine to better ensure operator safety.

Toro said he and the LVCVA have been so busy growing the convention center, there has been no time to toot their green horn. But the 13-year employee said that will change soon. The board of directors has named Robert Jones assistant chief engineer. His task is to expand the recycling program and make the convention center as green as humanly possible. This goal is in conjunction with the LVCVA’s quest to lure 43 million visitors to Las Vegas by 2010.

“We’re so bogged down with growth, we don’t have time to brag about the good things we do,” Toro said. “But we’ve started talking about showing Las Vegas just what we do. You look at what’s going on in the world today…we don’t need to be contributing to that.”