Steve Barnett used to sell lighting for a living, but his current vocation has gone in the opposite direction. Now, he smashes an estimated 4-5 million fluorescent bulbs a year.
Barnett is co-owner and president of Johnson City-based Southeast Recycling Technologies Inc. whose specialty is recycling the four components of fluorescent lamps. One of those elements is mercury which is so toxic that the EPA has a web site dedicated to correct disposal. So next time you toss an Energy Star approved Compact Fluorescent Lamp (CFL) in the trash, you’re introducing a extremely toxic element into the environment.
In my last post, I explained my drive to use more efficient CFLs which use about a quarter of the wattage of energy-slurping incandescent bulbs. The EPA and Dept. of Energy through ENERGY STAR are encouraging businesses and households to switch to CFLs. ENERGY STAR lists tax credits for doing that and for taking other energy saving measures.
The only downside which doesn’t begin to challenge the benefits is that CFLs must be recycled. Barnett estimates about 500 million of the 600-700 million fluorescent lamps sold every year end up in a landfill. “They all have mercury and I would not just say trace amounts. When you put it into the environment, it’s going somewhere. It’s there,” warns Barnett. Think about that next time you order salmon in a restaurant.
When the bulbs are recycled, they are put into an enclosed machine with a negative vacuum to prevent vapors from escaping. The machine separates the four materials – scrap metal, glass, phosphorous and mercury distilled from the phosphorous, Barnett explains.
The glass given away and recycled asphalt and a roadbed mix. The phosphorous goes into a concrete mix. “We give it away and pay someone to haul it for us,” says Barnett. “We’ve got a home for everything.”
Ahh, but what of the mercury? That is the only CFL leftover that generates cash for Barnett. It goes to D.F. Goldsmith Metal and Chemical Corp. where it is tripled distilled and resold. “They pay you about what it takes to pay for the freight to get it there,” says Barnett, adding his revenue comes from the recycling activity itself.
Most of Barnett’s customers are commercial concerns so if you brought him a couple of CFLs to recycle, he’d do it for nothing even through it costs an average of 30-35 cents a bulb. “Sixty cents would not be worth the paperwork to bill someone for a couple of lamps.”
That CFLs have to be recycled should discourage anything from making the switch to CFLs. “The energy savings pays for recycling tenfold,” he says. Lamprecycle.org is the place to find a recycler near you.