Alderman on City Council's energy and environment committee yesterday agreed that the city needs to ramp up efforts to recycle compact fluorescent light bulbs and teach the public about how to dispose of them safely.
“We’ve got to make more of a push to get this information out there without scaring people,” away from using the bulbs, says Ald. Leslie Hairston (D-5).
The bulbs have become increasingly popular because they last longer than traditional incandescent ones, and use less energy. Aldermen say they’ve been peppered with queries by constituents who’ve seen media reports focused on the public health effects of the bulbs’ mercury content.
Congress recently passed a new law that phases out incandescent bulbs beginning in 2012. Demand for places to recycle them is likely to increase quickly.
Aldermen Bob Fioretti (D-2), who says improper disposal of the bulbs down high-rise chutes is a growing problem, called for a coordinated city-wide approach.
“I’d like to see the public health department and streets and sanitation team up with environment and the non-profits on a comprehensive approach,” says Fioretti.
Most of the bulbs contain anywhere from 1.5 to 4 milligrams of mercury, and that amount is shrinking as the technology advances.
The U.S. EPA says that amount—less than one-one hundredth of the amount in an old fashioned thermometer--is barely enough to cover the tip of a ball point pen.
Still, it recommends recycling the bulbs in hazardous waste facilities to keep mercury from accumulating in landfills. It also urges precautionary measures if a bulb breaks.
While the EPA lists a detailed regimen to take in the event of a breakage, Brian Granahan, of Environment Illinois, says these can be distilled to a few basic steps: “Air out the room, don’t use a vacuum, which will spread the mercury around, and try to keep it off of yourself and your clothes—it’s pretty simple really.”
The city handed out over a million Energy-Star rated fluorescents over the past two years as part of its energy efficiency campaign.
Because fluorescents use 75 percent less energy and last ten years longer than standard bulbs, Department of Environment Commissioner Suzanne Malec-McKenna says they reduce carbon emissions and significantly cut down the mercury that gets into the environment from coal-burning power plants.
“We want to make sure that people understand that the environmental benefits far outweigh the risks,” said Malec-McKenna. “If handled properly, the risks to public health are minimal.”
Malec-McKenna said acknowledged that the city was “a bit behind the curve” on the public education issue, saying that public concern had ratcheted up just “within the past few weeks.”
In the first week of December, the environment department produced 1,000 brochures with tips for recycling bulbs and cleaning up after breakage and sent them to aldermen’s offices. It’s in the process of printing up another 50,000, said McKenna.
The brochure can be found on the department’s website.
Aldermen also called for sticking educational stickers on blue carts, coordinating a public information campaign with the city’s 350 blue cart recycling block captains, and requiring retailers who sell the bulbs to recycle.
Currently, Home Depot stores, IKEA and some ACE Hardware stores recycle the bulbs.
Several aldermen agreed that the issue is linked to expanding permanent sites for hazardous household waste beyond the city’s single Goose Island recycling facility, something Malec-McKenna called “an ongoing challenge” due to space and budgetary considerations.
“We need to look at that because once a month on a Saturday and those odd times during the week isn’t really cutting it,” says Ald. Hellen Shiller (D-46), referring to the Goose Island site.
Cory Jones, of the Sierra Club's Chicago Executive Committee, urged the city to get out in front on the issue.
"The future is already here," she says.
Jennifer Slosar is a Chicago-based freelance journalist. She covers environmental issues for the Daily News