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Light bulb recycling program aims to protect environment

LightRecycle Washington would keep mercury out of food chain

By , Columbian Port & Economy Reporter
Published:
3 Photos
The Hi-School Ace Hardware in Battle Ground is one of nine retailers in Clark County that serve as authorized collection sites for recycling mercury lights.
The Hi-School Ace Hardware in Battle Ground is one of nine retailers in Clark County that serve as authorized collection sites for recycling mercury lights. Katie Burbank, the store's assistant manager, says the program not only helps the environment but "gives us a sense of responsibility and dedication in caring for the place we live." Photo Gallery

A list of LightRecycle Washington collection sites is searchable by address at lightrecyclewa.org.

Mercury-containing lights accepted for recycling are: fluorescent tubes up to eight feet in length, including straight, U-shaped, circular and other curved shapes; compact fluorescent lights and high intensity discharge lights of all types and sizes.

People can recycle up to 10 mercury-containing lights per day for free at authorized collection sites.

For more information about LightRecycle Washington, visit www.LightRecycleWA.org or call 877-592-2972.

A new statewide light bulb recycling program is enlisting everyone from consumers and retailers to manufacturers to join the cause of keeping mercury from used light bulbs out of the food chain.

A list of LightRecycle Washington collection sites is searchable by address at lightrecyclewa.org.

Mercury-containing lights accepted for recycling are: fluorescent tubes up to eight feet in length, including straight, U-shaped, circular and other curved shapes; compact fluorescent lights and high intensity discharge lights of all types and sizes.

People can recycle up to 10 mercury-containing lights per day for free at authorized collection sites.

For more information about LightRecycle Washington, visit www.LightRecycleWA.org or call 877-592-2972.

Launched at the beginning of January, LightRecycle Washington charges consumers an extra 25 cents for every mercury-filled light they purchase. The proceeds pay for the program’s recycling, transportation and other expenses. The nonprofit PCA Product Stewardship runs the daily operations of LightRecycle, which is overseen by the state Department of Ecology.

Under the program, tied to a 2010 law that bans people from tossing depleted fluorescent bulbs into the garbage, retailers can choose to operate authorized collection sites. The sites are popping up across the state, with a total of 15 (including nine retailers) already established in Clark County. For retailers, the idea is three-pronged: enable consumers to protect human health and the environment by providing them with free, convenient drop-off locations; raise the green profile of participating stores; and win additional foot traffic for their businesses.

The Hi-School Ace Hardware on Main Street in Battle Ground is among the retail stores in Clark County that have signed up as LightRecycle collection sites. Katie Burbank, the store’s assistant manager, said the store has so far collected more than 200 pounds of bulbs for shipping and recycling.

“Removing waste in an ecofriendly way can have a huge impact on our community,” she said in an email to The Columbian. “Not only does recycling contribute to the environment, it gives us a sense of responsibility and dedication in caring for the place we live.”

And the impact of mercury oozing into the food chain is no small matter.

A 2003 study by the Ecology department showed that fluorescent lights were the No. 1 source of mercury coming from products, accounting for the release of 437 to 505 pounds annually in Washington.

Mercury is “a very toxic chemical even at low levels, and it persists and builds up over time in the food chain,” Andrew Wineke, a spokesman for Ecology, said in an email to The Columbian. “That’s why in Washington we have a statewide fish advisory because of the amount of mercury in fish.”

The LightRecycle program’s goal is to increase collection quantities by at least 5 percent annually, from 949,311 units this year to 1.15 million units in 2019, according to a stewardship plan submitted to Ecology by PCA Product Stewardship.

‘Handling charge’

Bringing LightRecycle to fruition wasn’t easy.

It stems from a law, passed in 2010, that prohibited discarding fluorescent bulbs in the trash and that called for a program to collect, transport and recycle mercury-filled lights.

The program, developed over several years, was set up to be funded by producers of bulbs. But the National Electrical Manufacturers Association successfully challenged the funding mechanism in a lawsuit. Ultimately, state lawmakers resolved the legal dispute and the delays to the program’s implementation during last year’s legislative session by shifting the program’s costs to consumers.

As a result, the LightRecycle program, including an “environmental handling charge” of 25 cents added to the price of each mercury light, took effect on Jan. 1.

That’s not to say similar recycling programs weren’t running in Washington before LightRecycle came along. Clark Public Utilities, the voter-owned utility providing power and water to residential and business customers, has offered a compact fluorescent light recycling and exchange program for more than 10 years. With the introduction of LightRecycle, the utility also is now an official collection center under the program.

The utility collects only screw-in compact fluorescent bulbs at two Vancouver area locations — 1200 Fort Vancouver Way and 8600 N.E. 117th Ave. It gathers any and all mercury bulbs at 100 Columbia Way in Vancouver, its official LightRecycle collection location.

Many of the mercury light recycling programs that came before LightRecycle are concentrated in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, according to the stewardship plan crafted by PCA Product Stewardship.

The idea behind LightRecycle is to increase the reclamation of mercury lights by expanding drop-off sites “throughout the state,” according to Washington’s stewardship plan, “and reaching rural communities that are not currently serviced by the existing network.”

Wineke, the Ecology spokesman, said LightRecycle has been adding collection sites rapidly, with more than 200 now up and running in the state. The list of collection sites includes retailers, utilities, and recycling and solid waste transfer stations. In Clark County, as of Feb. 13, there were 15 such sites.

The LightRecycle program is designed to serve residential and small-business consumers, allowing them to dispose of up to 10 mercury lights per day for recycling. Large industrial, commercial and government consumers typically maintain hazardous waste plans under which they offload mercury lights for recycling at major transfer stations, Wineke said.

‘Fairly new’

Although producers successfully sued the state over the funding method, they’re still on the hook. Under the law, producers can’t sell mercury lights in or into Washington state unless they participate in the LightRecycle program.

Those who don’t participate, but who continue to sell mercury lights, face written warnings from state regulators and, if that doesn’t work, monetary penalties.

The LightRecycle program includes options for producers and retailers to remit the proceeds from the 25-cent handling charge to PCA Product Stewardship, which runs the program. The nonprofit is an affiliate of Product Care Association, which is headquartered in Vancouver, B.C. Peter Thermos, the Seattle-based program manager for LightRecycle, said used mercury lights are shipped to a Seattle company, EcoLights, which weighs, breaks down and recycles the lights. “It’s a pretty dirty job,” he said.

Thermos sees the LightRecycle program as an important vehicle for ensuring that used-up mercury lights don’t end up becoming someone else’s health or environmental problem. Washington isn’t alone in adopting such a program. For example, Maine, Vermont and Minnesota maintain similar “product stewardship” arrangements. And several Canadian provinces, including British Columbia, Quebec and Ontario, oversee comparable policies.

“It’s fairly new to the United States,” Thermos said of such stewardship programs. “It’s not fairly new to Canada or Europe. What it’s doing is basically encouraging manufacturers to create products that are safer for the environment and safer for people.”

He added, “I feel really lucky to be part of this.”

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