Energy Adviser: Protect the environment by recycling CFL bulbs

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A new law went into effect in Washington on Jan. 1 requiring manufacturers of compact fluorescent light bulbs to pay for a state-run recycling program for their products. The law aims to keep CFLs out of landfills to prevent the small amount of mercury the bulbs contain from getting into the environment.

The law, however, doesn't change things much for residents of Clark County, who can keep doing what they have been: Take their burned out CFL bulbs to any Clark Public Utilities location and get as many as six new ones for free.

"I call it a win-win-win," said DuWayne Dunham, a Clark Public Utilities energy adviser. "CFLs use one-fourth of the energy, last at least four times longer than an incandescent bulb, and they have recycling value."

Other locations also accept CFLs, including Vancouver's Central Transfer and Recovery Center, West Van Materials Recovery Center and Washougal Transfer Station, as well as Home Depot and IKEA.

Proper disposal of CFLs is important because each bulb contains as much as five milligrams of mercury, a neurotoxin. To put that in perspective, older thermometers contain about 500 milligrams of mercury, an amount equal to the mercury in more than 100 CFLs, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

According to the EPA, the use of CFLs actually helps prevent mercury from entering the air by saving energy, since the nation's highest source of mercury comes from power plants burning coal. Plus, as Dunham points out, incandescent bulbs cannot be recycled.

"In the life of a CFL, you'd throw away four or five incandescents," he said.

Dunham recommends replacing the incandescent bulbs in your most-used fixtures with CFLs.

"A 60-watt incandescent bulb costs a penny every two hours. You can burn a 15-watt CFL, which would be the equivalent, for eight hours before it costs a penny," Dunham said.

He does caution, however, against using CFLs in lamps that may get knocked over by a pet or a child. The mercury that's sealed in a CFL can be released when the bulb is broken. It's not the end of the world if a CFL bulb is broken, but cleanup requires care.

"When CFLs first came out, people had a lot of fear that if they break one of these, they'd have to get out a hazmat suit," Dunham said. That's not required, but protective gloves are a good idea.

If you break a bulb, don't panic. Here's how the EPA says to clean it up:

  1. Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.

  2. Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bits. Instead, put on disposable gloves and then carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a plastic bag and seal it. Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes.

  3. Seal all cleanup materials in a second plastic bag. Put the sealed plastic bags in your outdoor trash container.

  4. If a fluorescent bulb breaks on a rug or carpet, remove all materials you can without using a vacuum cleaner. Duct tape can be used to pick up small pieces and powder. If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister) and put the bag or vacuum debris in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash.

Energy adviser is written by Clark Public Utilities. Send questions to ecod@clarkpud.com or to Energy Adviser, c/o Clark Public Utilities, P.O. Box 8900, Vancouver, WA 98668.