Seen those new spiral-tube energy-saving light bulbs lately? They're compact fluorescent lamps, and businesses are starting to use them because they can make a huge dent in electricity bills. But they can also carry a megawatt cost a fine of up to $25,000 per day if just one bulb is improperly tossed in the trash.
Compact fluorescents use 75 percent less electricity than the regular bulbs, which is good for the environment. But they contain mercury, and that's bad for the environment. So the burned-out bulbs must be recycled, not just tossed away like old incandescent bulbs.
Companies increasingly may have to do what the Rand Corp. does. Rand, headquartered in a certified green building in Santa Monica, has its old compact fluorescent bulbs picked up three times a year by a hazardous waste vendor. The company disposes of about a dozen cases of bulbs at a time, said Warren Robak, spokesman for Rand.
Compact fluorescents, along with batteries, have been banned from landfills for a few years, but most businesses don't know this, said Kit Cole, spokeswoman for Waste Management, which offers pick-up services of recyclable waste.
Toss compact fluorescent bulbs into an office trash can, and the company can get slapped with a hefty fine.
"That's the big dirty secret about compact fluorescent bulbs," Cole said.
Waste Management charges a typical medium-sized business about $60 a year to provide pre-paid storage and shipping containers for spent lamps.
Companies can still use regular incandescent bulbs, but federal law mandates that they be phased out by 2014. Eventually, most of what will be left on the market will be fluorescent bulbs. Many businesses have already made the shift.
"Just about every hotel in California uses compact fluorescents," said Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, who championed a law that was passed in March that raises efficiency standards for light bulbs. "The simple reason is that when you have a bulb that draws 75 percent less power than regular light bulbs, that's reflected in the electricity bill."
Disposal of these bulbs, however, will continue to be a problem unless the government or bulb manufacturers make it convenient for businesses to recycle them, said Bill Magavern, director of Sierra Club California. Today, less than half of light bulbs containing mercury get recycled, he said.
"We don't want people to drive 10 miles to recycle a couple of light bulbs," Magavern said. "That only adds harm to the environment.
"Until households and businesses have free, convenient ways to recycle, we're not going to see the recycling rate go up."
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