March 4, 2010

Many still in the dark on recycling of fluorescents


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John Patriquin/Staff Photographer;Tuesday,Sept.29, 2009 Robert O'Brien is the asst. mgr. at Aubuchon Hardware in Portland where he takes in used compact flourescent bulbs for recycling.

click image to enlarge

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer;Tuesday,Sept.29, 2009 Robert O'Brien is the asst. mgr. at Aubuchon Hardware in Portland where he takes in used compact flourescent bulbs for recycling. These are new bulbs on display at the Stevens Ave. store.

Staff Writer

Efforts to promote energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs have been a big success in Maine, with millions bought and installed in recent years.

The bulbs are saving energy and money, and reducing greenhouse gas pollution.

But efforts to recycle the bulbs aren't working out so well.

A recent survey by a University of Southern Maine professor showed that respondents were more likely to throw burned-out bulbs in the trash than recycle them. Although three out of four people said they knew the bulbs contain mercury, most didn't know that it's illegal to throw them in the trash, or that there is any alternative, according to the study.

''One thing that did surprise me was that so many people knew that mercury was a problem,'' said Travis Wagner, an assistant professor of environmental science at USM. ''Even with that information the collection rates are pretty low.''

Figuring out how to keep the bulbs out of the trash is a rising priority for the state, for waste handling agencies and for bulb manufacturers, which must take over the state's recycling effort by 2011.

Each bulb contains a small amount of mercury that, once released at an incinerator or a landfill, can find its way into lakes, fish, birds and, potentially, people. An estimated 3 million bulbs are expected to burn out in the coming years.

Many municipal transfer stations collect the bulbs so recyclers can remove the mercury. Some towns charge fees, while others accept the bulbs only on special collection days.

About 200 hardware stores and other retailers around Maine collect burned-out fluorescent bulbs for free as part of a state-sponsored program to promote recycling.

But, as Wagner found out, the programs are not well known and are not convenient enough to be effective. ''There are some barriers,'' he said. ''With any recycling, you have to make it as easy as possible.''

Wagner did an Internet-based survey of about 500 people last spring and circulated the findings to state officials and others this month.

Nearly half of the respondents told Wagner that they had 10 or more compact fluorescent bulbs in their homes or apartments, primarily to conserve energy.

Of those who used the bulbs, 28.9 percent said they threw spent ones in the trash, 23.5 percent said they recycled them, 16.2 percent didn't know what they did with them, 7.6 percent said they stored them and 23.8 percent said none had burned out yet.

Most respondents said they didn't know that the bulbs must be recycled, or where to take them. Nearly three-fourths of the respondents didn't know they could drop them off at stores for free.

''That's awesome,'' said Bill Schoen of Portland, when told that his local hardware store collects them.

Schoen wasn't sure what to do with the bulbs in his home when they burn out. But he did know that he must recycle them somehow because of the mercury inside.

''I'm pretty sure it's on that list of stuff'' you shouldn't throw away, Schoen said.

''I get the sense people really want to recycle them,'' said Robert O'Brien, assistant manager of the Audubon Hardware store on Stevens Avenue in Portland, one of the collection sites. ''But we could certainly do better.''

Wagner's findings are of special interest to organizations such as ecomaine, a Portland-based agency that takes trash from around southern Maine and burns it in a giant waste-to-energy incinerator.

Ecomaine already spends $240,000 to $360,000 a year to scrub mercury and dioxin, a similar pollutant, out of the emissions that leave its smokestack.

Some of the light bulbs end up at the incinerator now, and workers remove them when they find them, said Kevin Roche, general manager of ecomaine. But a significant flow into the plant would make it more difficult, and more expensive, to avoid spewing the toxin into the air.

''People know there's mercury in them. Now we just need to make sure they don't throw them away. I guess we're halfway there,'' said Kevin Roche, general manager of ecomaine. ''I use them myself. The key is, you've just got to get them recycled.''

At landfills and incinerators that crush trash before burning it, vapors can escape into the air without any emission controls, he said.

Stores collected and recycled a total of 4,723 bulbs in 2008, according to Efficiency Maine, which spent about $40,000 last year setting up and running the program.

''There is a very low level of infrastructure right now focused on recycling. The fact that there are some being recycled is great in our view, and there's certainly much more that can be done,'' said Evelyn deFrees, spokeswoman for Efficiency Maine.

DeFrees and others hope the recycling rate will increase in 2011, when bulb manufacturers take over the task.

Last summer, Maine became the first state to require light bulb manufacturers to create a recycling program that's free, convenient and includes public education. The industry must propose a plan to the state by January.

''Manufacturers are still reviewing their options,'' said Mark Tibbetts, recycling initiatives director for the National Electrical Manufacturers Association.

In the meantime, the industry is also reviewing the challenges laid out by Wagner's study.

Staff Writer John Richardson can be contacted at 791-6324 or at:

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