Lighting Research Center Lighting Research Center
Volume 3 Number 2
Copyright @1998 Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute

The Lamp Disposal Controversy

In 1994, the United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) proposed changes to current federal lamp disposal regulations, setting off an intense, ongoing debate between lamp manufacturers, recyclers, lighting services companies, state and local government agencies, and environmental advocates. All have much at stake, as do companies that have committed to major lighting upgrades that will generate large quantities of spent lamps for disposal.

Current Lamp Disposal Regulations

At the beginning of the 1990s, there were no federal or state regulations for disposing of HID or fluorescent lamps, except in California. Now, the federal government and many individual states have adopted regulations that affect lamp disposal; and these regulations vary widely. States without their own regulations are enforcing the federal regulations differently. To find out about disposal regulations in your area, you should contact your local solid waste or hazardous waste agency.

Federal laws do not specifically regulate lamp disposal, but because of lamps' mercury content, they come under the jurisdiction of certain hazardous waste laws. The Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) of 1990 is the most important of these regulations. This law superseded the RCRA of 1978 and introduced a new toxicity test that, unexpectedly, ended up classifying many lamps as hazardous waste.

RCRA specifies three different levels of regulatory requirements that depend on how much hazardous waste a company or individual generates. Most households and small businesses fall into the category of "conditionally exempt small quantity generators," meaning that they generate less than 100 kilograms of hazardous waste in a calendar month. (For lamp disposal, the weight limit includes the entire lamp weight, not just the mercury, so this is equivalent to roughly 350 4-foot T12 fluorescent lamps.) As long as they store less than 1000 kilograms of hazardous waste on site, they may legally place their lamps into the municipal waste stream (unless prohibited by state law). Parties that generate 100 to 1000 kilograms of hazardous waste per month are exempted from certain recordkeeping and storage requirements. For example, they can store the waste up to 180 days without a permit.

RCRA's full requirements only apply to "large quantity waste generators," who are defined as parties disposing of more than 1000 kilograms of hazardous waste per month (roughly 3500 T12 lamps). These waste generators are responsible for determining whether or not their lamps can pass the Toxic Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP), a laboratory test designed to simulate the potential for toxic materials to leach out of a landfill into the surrounding environment. If the concentration of leachable mercury is above a certain threshold, the lamps are considered hazardous waste. Most fluorescent and HID lamps will fail the TCLP.

Large quantity waste generators can determine if their lamps can pass the TCLP by obtaining test results for their lamp types from the lamp manufacturer; by consulting a 1992 U.S. EPA study, "Analytical Results of Mercury in Fluorescent Lamps," to see if their lamps passed the TCLP in U.S. EPA's testing; or by paying a laboratory to test a random sample of lamps, at a cost of about $90 per lamp. The required number of lamps to test is not specified, but three to five lamps may be necessary to obtain statistically valid results.

Lamps that pass the TCLP do not have to be treated as hazardous waste and in most states may be legally placed into the municipal waste stream. Lamps that fail, however, are subject to stringent hazardous waste disposal regulations, with requirements for the storage, packaging, labeling, transportation, and final disposition of the lamps. The lamps must eventually be placed in a hazardous waste landfill (a RCRA Subtitle C facility) or recycled at an approved facility. The cost of compliant lamp disposal is about 30 to 40 cents per lamp.

The Superfund Law (the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act of 1980) also applies to lamp disposal. For instance, the Superfund requires that waste generators report the disposal of a pound or more of mercury in a 24-hour period (about 19,000 T12 lamps) to the National Response Center at (800) 424-8802. This affects only a few very large waste generators; however, the Superfund can also hold any mercury waste generator, no matter how small, liable for the cleanup costs at a landfill, incinerator, storage site, or recycling facility, if that facility later becomes a Superfund cleanup site. Ironically, companies that recycle their lamps or properly dispose of them as hazardous waste may have a greater potential for liability, because they can be more easily identified as a waste generator, than companies that disposed of lamps in municipal landfills and incinerators, which do not keep records to identify lamp-waste generators.

The central question: what should be done with spent fluorescent and high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps, which contain small amounts of mercury, a material toxic to humans and animals? Under current regulations, U.S. EPA classifies most of these lamps as hazardous waste, subject to stringent disposal requirements. Two proposed alternatives would each relax these requirements. U.S. EPA is expected to announce its decision within a few months. In the four years since, however, individual states have adopted widely varying regulations, further complicating the issue.

It is now common practice in the lighting renovations industry to assume that large quantities of spent fluorescent and HID lamps must be handled as hazardous waste. The cost of compliant lamp disposal or recycling (roughly 30 to 40 cents per lamp) is routinely figured into payback and return-on-investment analyses for large-scale lighting renovations. (See the end of this article for tips on finding a good lamp recycler.) Even if U.S. EPA decides not to relax regulations, recently introduced fluorescent and HID lamps have low enough mercury content that they are no longer classified as hazardous waste.

How serious is the problem?

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin harmful to both animals and humans. Humans are typically exposed to mercury by ingestion of contaminated fish. The fish are contaminated by mercury that precipitates into lakes from the atmosphere. Prolonged exposure to mercury affects the nervous system and may cause symptoms such as shaking, trembling, problems with balance, and numbness in the feet, hands, tongue and lips. Severe exposure, such as accidental ingestion of pure mercury, can affect vision and hearing, and cause permanent brain damage.

Spent lamps are a small but steady contributor of mercury to the environment. U.S. EPA estimates that over 750 million fluorescent lamps will be disposed of in 1998. Their highest estimate for lamp disposal mercury emissions is 2.5 tons per year. To put that into perspective, 7000 tons of mercury are released annually from natural sources, primarily from volcanoes. Another 6000 tons are released from fossil-fuel power plant emissions, and 3500 tons are released from such sources as automobiles, natural gas furnaces, and municipal waste incinerators. Most of the mercury emitted from spent lamps is released by lamps burned in municipal incinerators or by lamps broken in transit to disposal sites.

Flaws in the laws

The U.S. EPA and other parties say that the most serious flaw in the present regulations is that they permit municipal incinerator disposal of lamps, both for small quantity generators and for large quantity generators whose lamps pass the TCLP. Unless an incinerator has carbon injector filtering equipment, more than 90% of the mercury contained in the lamps will be released into the atmosphere during incineration. Short of dumping broken lamps into lakes, this is the worst possible way to handle the mercury content in fluorescent and HID lamps. At present, fewer than 15% of municipal incinerators have filtering equipment, but, undernew federal regulations, they all will be required to in-stall filters by the year 2000.

Some states, including Florida and Connecticut, have explicitly banned the disposal of fluorescent lamps in municipal incinerators. U.S. EPA and the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA) strongly recommend against sending spent fluorescent or HID lamps to municipal incinerators.

Studies commissioned by the U.S. EPA show that mercury is very unlikely to leach out of municipal landfills into surrounding groundwater. In the few cases where a detectable amount did leach, the level was far below the limit allowed for in drinking water. U.S. EPA estimates the total annual mercury leached from lamps in landfills at about 1 kilogram per year. Thus, small quantity generators, including households, can safely put their spent lamps into the regular trash, as long as their trash goes to a landfill, not an incinerator.

The proposed new regulations

In view of the results of its 1992 mercury emissions study and of the potential environmental benefits from the lighting upgrades promoted by its Green Lights program, in 1994, U.S. EPA sought to ease the disposal of fluorescent and HID lamps. Their logic was sound: energy savings from newer, more efficient lighting systems can reduce power plant emissions. Since power plants are a much larger source of mercury emissions than spent lamps, U.S. EPA could actually reduce total mercury emissions by making it easier and cheaper for companies to landfill and recycle their old lamps (thereby removing a major disincentive to large-scale lighting upgrades).

The Green Lights program has been tremendously successful in getting large companies to voluntarily upgrade to more energy-efficient lighting, but now faces the more challenging task of targeting small- and medium-sized businesses. According to Mark Williams, branch operations manager for Amtech Lighting Services, smaller companies are more concerned about disposal costs.

"They're cutting costs anywhere they can," he said. Smaller companies are also less likely to understand disposal concerns and may balk at recycling costs. "Often," he said, "they're just simply unaware of the issue."Thus, in July 1994, the U.S. EPA proposed two alternatives to deregulate fluorescent and HID lamp disposal: a "conditional exclusion" from RCRA for fluorescent and HID lamps and a proposal to include lamps under the "universal waste rule," which would relax the requirement for transporting lamps from waste generators to special collection sites (typically, recycling centers). The conditional exclusion essentially legalizes municipal landfilling while allowing the option of recycling; the universal waste rule essentially mandates either recycling or disposal of lamps as hazardous waste.

Lamp manufacturers, through NEMA, and lighting services companies, through the interNational Association of Lighting Management Companies (NALMCO), initially supported the conditional exclusion, but dissension arose among the lamp manufacturers, so NEMA no longer has a position on the issue. NEMA also called for a ban on municipal incineration of lamps, an option the original conditional exclusion proposal would have allowed. Lamp recyclers, some environmental groups and, eventually, Philips Lighting, supported the universal waste rule, citing the environmental benefits of recycling.

State of confusion

Four years later, U.S. EPA has yet to adopt either proposal. Meanwhile, they adopted the universal waste rule for batteries, thermostats, and certain pesticides; these wastes may now be shipped to recycling centers without following hazardous waste restrictions. U.S. EPA is allowing states to add other wastes, including lamps, to the universal waste rule by a petition process. To date, at least 32 states have petitioned to add lamps to the rule, and more states are expected to follow. According to Lyn Luben of U.S. EPA's Office of Solid Waste, a finalized version of one of the two proposals will be adopted at the end of the summer. Given that two-thirds of the states have petitioned for the universal waste rule, it is likely that the new federal regulations will be based on that proposal.

In this interim stage, during which the responsibility for lamp disposal regulation has fallen to the state level, there has been confusion among the states about lamp disposal. According to Peter Bleasby, director of Industry Relations and Standards for OSRAM SYLVANIA (OS), even states that have petitioned to include lamps under the universal waste rule are unsure of how to apply the new rules. Technically, lamps intended for recycling can be handled as non-hazardous waste while being transported to collection sites. "But some states interpret collection site to mean the recycling center, and some interpret it to mean the hazardous waste landfill where the lamps eventually wind up," Bleasby said. "Even within states, enforcement of regulations can vary depending on the county."

Another factor that states must consider is that all three major fluorescent lamp manufacturers (GE Lighting, Philips Lighting, and OSI) have introduced low-mercury fluorescent lamps which they claim are capable of passing the TCLP at all stages of lamp life. In 1985, the average 4-foot fluorescent lamp contained 48 milligrams of mercury. By 1994, manufacturers had reduced that amount by more than half to 23 milligrams. The low-mercury lamps now being offered contain as little as 5 milligrams of mercury. HID lamps that can pass the TCLP should also be widely available later this year.

Low mercury blow?

Philips Lighting invested heavily in new manufacturing processes to develop its Alto low-mercury fluorescent lamp. They recently accused GE Lighting of dosing the metal endcaps of GE's Ecolux lamps with ascorbic acid (vitamin C) to help them pass TCLP. Philips alleges that the ascorbic acid reduces the solubility of the mercury during the test, but that in landfill conditions the mercury would not come into contact with the ascorbic acid and would remain soluble. GE Lighting Environmental Marketing Manager Joe Howley explains that ascorbic acid, "was chosen as the most environmentally benign of many substances considered to reduce solubility." He also stresses that, "GE has significantly lowered the mercury content of...Ecolux fluorescent lamps."

Despite the expense of developing low-mercury lamps, manufacturers are selling them at prices similar to regular lamps. Steve Goldmacher of Philips Lighting said that although their Alto low-mercury product line might command a premium from some distributors or retailers, "we offer it to our distributors at exactly the same price as our previous types." Goldmacher estimates that low-mercury lamps now account for "10-15% and growing" of Philips Lighting's fluorescent lamp sales. That's about 20 to 30 million lamps in the United States alone.

Landfilling or recycling?

In 1994, lamp manufacturers unanimously supported the conditional exclusion proposal (which would legalize landfilling of fluorescent and HID lamps), but they are no longer in agreement about which option U.S. EPA should adopt. Philips Lighting, which was the first of the three to introduce a low-mercury 4-foot fluorescent lamp, now "fully supports universal waste as the method that EPA should adopt," said Goldmacher. Even though Alto lamps can be landfilled legally in most states, Philips still supports recycling as the best disposal option.

Support for recycling is a company-wide policy at Philips, but this change in position may have been motivated in part by a desire to sell lamps; if the conditional exclusion is adopted, there will be less reason for people to buy the Alto low-mercury lamps, which Philips has invested so heavily in developing.

OSI, on the other hand, supports landfilling of spent lamps in states where that is allowed. OSI's Bleasby cites a Swedish study that showed that the recycling processes used at most facilities release more mercury from lamps into the environment (up to 3 percent of the total content) than is released in a municipal landfill (typically an undetectably small amount).

Another potential problem with recycling is the phenomenon known as "speculative accumulation," the practice by startup recycling companies of accepting and stockpiling hazardous waste until they have earned enough in fees to afford the ability to process the waste. The Department of Environmental Services in New Hampshire is presently investigating the case of one such company which failed and shut down, allegedly leaving behind 300,000 unprocessed lamps and exposing the original waste generators to liability for the cleanup expense.

Another hurdle to recycling is the difficulty of packing lamps and transporting them to the recycler. To address these concerns and to reduce the number of lamps that break in transit, at least one HID lamp manufacturer, Venture Lighting, has instituted a lamp take-back recycling program, in which they supply free packing cartons and pick-up service for spent lamps being replaced by new Venture lamps.

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