Alderman wants word out about recycling energy-efficient bulbs

  • By Jennifer Slosar
  • Environment Reporter
  • January 06, 2009 @ 9:00 AM

Energy efficiency is rising as more consumers light their homes with compact fluorescent bulbs, but so are concerns about proper disposal of the mercury-containing bulbs.

Alderman Bob Fioretti  (D-2) says the city should increase public education about disposal and handling of the bulbs and make recycling sites more accessible.

“We’re giving these out like candy, and we’re not doing enough to educate people about the possible dangers,” says Fioretti.

City Council's environment and energy committee will hold a hearing on the issue tomorrow afternoon.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says that, compared with incandescent bulbs, the energy-efficient CFLs decrease the amount of mercury in the environment by curbing the demand for coal-fired power plants, which emit the toxic chemical.

However, it recommends recycling the bulbs because breakage in land-fills can lead to mercury contamination of soil and water.

The average CFL used to contain four milligrams of mercury within its glass casing. That’s less than one-one hundredth the amount found in thermometers, according to the E.P.A. Some bulbs now contain between one and two milligrams.

The city makes the popular spiral bulbs available for free at a number of sites, including aldermanic offices, and distributes them at energy efficiency fairs.
Fioretti says disposal is a pressing problem at high rises.

“People throw the things down their trash chutes, and that releases mercury into the air and pollutes the building,” he says.

The alderman also says the instructions the city provides don’t adequately direct consumers to recycling sites or provide advice for cleaning up mercury spills when bulbs break.

Instructions on tiny print on the sleeves advise consumers to “dispose of CFLs carefully.” It says that they contain a small amount of mercury, and “the Illinois EPA recommends CFLs be taken to a hazardous waste collection center” at the end of their lives.

Also listed on the box is a website for the city’s environment department, which provides an EPA tip sheet on how to clean up if a CFL breaks.

The city provides recycling of CFLs at its facility at 1150 N. North Branch St., which is open two days per week and one Saturday per month. It also educates consumers about proper recycling procedures at environmental resource fairs held throughout the city, says Department of Environment spokesman Larry Merritt.

Home Depot stores also began accepting household CFLs for recycling in August.

Brian Granahan, staff attorney at Environment Illinois, says that, while more education about bulb recycling is welcome, the mercury threat should be put in perspective.

“There’s a whole host of common household products that contain ten times as much mercury as CFLs” says Granahan.

The hearing takes place at 1 p.m. tomorrow on the second floor of City Hall.


Jennifer Slosar is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She covers environmental issues for the Daily News