There are two major types of fluorescent lamps: tubular (a.k.a. linear, circular, or U-shaped bulbs) and compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). Linear tubes are often used in office buildings and the industrial sector, while CFLs are popular in residential settings. At the turn of the millennium, utility companies and the U.S. EPA began promoting CFLs as an environmentally friendly alternative to the traditional light bulb model. CFLs use up to 75 percent less energy than incandescent light bulbs and last up to 10 times longer, reducing both environmental and financial costs.
Fluorescent lamps emit light through a chemical reaction involving mercury, a harmful neurotoxin that is persistent in the environment and accumulates in living organisms. If improperly handled, this toxic substance can easily leach into the environment and contaminate our food and water supply. When a fluorescent bulb breaks, either during use or disposal, mercury vapor is released, and those in the vicinity are put at risk for mercury exposure.
Limited awareness of the mercury in these lamps has led to poor recycling rates and an influx of mercury into the waste stream. Today, fluorescent tube lighting is still ubiquitous in office buildings, although the compact fluorescent is becoming a legacy product as LEDs surpass them in efficiency. Ensuring proper management and disposal of is essential to keeping mercury out of the environment.
The best way to keep these lamps out of the waste stream is to ensure that consumers have convenient access to take-back programs for their used fluorescent bulbs. There are two ways to provide this service: –through voluntary or mandatory programs.
Voluntary programs: The National Electrical Manufacturer’s Association (NEMA) maintains a list of companies in the U.S. and Canada that recycle spent mercury lamps or take steps to ensure they end up at a recycling facility. There are limited voluntary take-back collections across the country due to high waste management costs, lack of awareness or interest in the issue, and limited willingness on the part of commercial buildings, where most fluorescent lamps are in use, to take responsibility for safely recycling their bulbs.
For more information on manufacturers, fluorescent lighting products, mercury content, and safe bulb disposal, please see the Northeast Waste Management Official’s Association (NEWMOA), the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers (ALMR), and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)’s websites.
Legislated Mandatory Programs: Requiring manufacturers to fund the collection and proper management of mercury-bearing fluorescent light bulbs is the best way to protect human health and the environment from mercury contamination. Processing these bulbs and safely extracting mercury is a tedious and costly process, putting a strain on waste managers, taxpayers, and local governments.
In 2009, Maine passed the first extended producer responsibility (EPR) law for mercury-containing lighting. Legislation has since passed in Washington (2010), Vermont (2011), Massachusetts (2014), and Rhode Island (2016).
PSI members and partners have access to current U.S. EPR laws and bills. Learn more about membership or partnership on our website.
PSI's Role in Delivering Solutions
Provides Technical Assistance and Implementation Support
PSI provides expert assistance in implementing, monitoring, and promoting collection programs for fluorescent bulbs. In 2008, PSI designed and implemented a retail collection pilot program for spent fluorescent lights at Ace hardware stores in Montana, South Dakota, and Utah in collaboration with Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE) (http://www.womensvoices.org/). PSI also expanded the Fluorescents Take It Back Network in collaboration with Washington Citizens for Resource Conservation (WCRC) to include retailers in Pierce and Thurston County, Washington.
Advocates for EPR Legislation
PSI monitors, informs, and advocates for product stewardship legislation for fluorescent bulbs, offering expert testimony supporting EPR legislation.
PSI provided technical support in the passage of the nation’s first EPR law for fluorescent lamps in Maine, as well as subsequent laws passed in Washington, Vermont, and Massachusetts. PSI monitors legislative developments at the state and national levels to ensure that they align with the interests of PSI members.
We provide exclusive legislative resources for PSI Members and Partners – login or learn more.
Brings Stakeholders Together
PSI facilitated multiple National Dialogues on Fluorescent Lighting in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Seattle, Washington in 2008 to promote the use of energy efficient lighting while eliminating or reducing the amount of mercury and other toxins entering the environment. These dialogues resulted in a Product Stewardship Action Plan for Fluorescent Lamps. As part of the initiative, PSI convened work groups that considered options related to disposal bans, collection infrastructure, financing recycling programs, emerging lighting technologies, lamp breakage, and measuring recycling rates.
Creates Toolkits and Online Resources
PSI develops tools for governments, NGOs, and other stakeholders that wish to initiate, evaluate, modify, or promote fluorescent bulb management programs. Some of our most recent resources include:
For more information, please contact Tess Zinnes at (617) 236-4886.