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Mercury-Laden CFLs to Overwhelm Minnesota's Recycling Program

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A surge in the number of mercury-bearing energy-efficient light bulbs in use in Minnesota is expected to overwhelm recycling programs in the next few years and there’s no plan yet on how to recycle more of them.

Fluorescent light bulbs use only one-fourth as much energy per unit of light produced as incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer. One CFL bulb contains 5 milligrams of mercury, about one-fifth the amount in a watch battery.

The number of recycled compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) available for recycling in the state is expected to rise from 346,000 in 2008 to 2,419.000 in 2011 as federal and state energy efficiency mandates kick in. Minnesota’s 2008 CFL recycling rate was one of the highest among the states at an estimated 37%, and much of the Gopher State has nearby recycling options.

But many of the state’s consumers aren’t aware that CFLs need to be recycled to contain the mercury. While 73.1% of the state’s households use at least one CFL, only 39% of respondents to a survey knew that recycling of the bulbs is required by Minnesota law.

Local household hazardous waste (HHW) collection programs receive the majority of Minnesota’s recycled CFLs, with home improvement and hardware stores taking back the bulk of the rest. Because most of the local HHW programs are largely funded by county taxes, it’s unclear whether or how funding to expand them will be made available.

When asked how to fund expanded programs, 55% of surveyed citizens said they’d prefer to do it through an increase in the price of the bulbs. Another 30% would prefer to pay through recycling fees. An increase of 50 cents in the price of bulbs would still leave 80% recycling the bulbs, but a $1.50 recycling cost would cut that rate to 52%.

Industry observers say the CFL recycling problem will likely be “time-limited.” After CFL use peaks, replacement technologies, including LED lights and other lower-mercury lighting technologies are expected to claim a rising share toward the middle part of the next decade.

State Rep. Melissa Hortman introduced legislation in 2009 to require CFL manufacturers selling bubs in the state to create comprehensive recycling programs, but the bill didn’t get a hearing. Maine became the first state to require CFL recycling by law this year.

Image Credit: City of Rosemount, Minnesota


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Written By

Dave Dempsey is a writer active in conservation for more than 25 years. A frequent freelance contributor and newsweekly columnist, Dave is the author of four award-winning books on the environment and a biography of Michigan’s longest-serving Governor, William Milliken. A native of Michigan who now lives in the Twin Cities metro in Minnesota, Dave served as environmental advisor to Michigan Governor James J. Blanchard from 1983-89. President Clinton appointed him to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in 1994. Dave has also held numerous administrative, policy and consulting positions for nonprofit conservation and environmental organizations in Michigan and Minnesota. He was both policy director and executive director at the Michigan Environmental Council and Great Lakes policy consultant for Clean Water Action. Dave has a bachelor of arts degree from Western Michigan University and a master’s degree in natural resource development from Michigan State University, and has served as an adjunct university instructor at MSU in environmental policy.

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