There has been significant controversy and confusion over both the existing and pending regulations for the disposal of spent fluorescent lamps. More than 500 million lamps are disposed of annually. The majority of these, approximately 400 to 450 million, are not disposed of properly. Only about 50 million presently are recycled or disposed of in a hazardous-waste landfill.
According to the existing regulations, all lamps for disposal must be treated as hazardous waste under the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act if they fail a toxic characteristic leaching procedure test. This test identifies whether a waste is toxic and must be managed as hazardous waste. Most lamps will fail and, as with all hazardous waste, the generator is responsible for the lamp from the moment it is purchased to its disposal.
Pending regulations The pending regulations are offering a more generator-friendly approach. The EPA released the first of these proposed regulations in July 1994. This proposal listed two options for regulation and disposal of spent fluorescent mercury-containing lamps: Universal Waste Rule or Conditional Exclusion. The Universal Waste Rule (UWR) option would allow mercury-containing lamps to be excluded from the hazardous-waste regulations as long as the lamps are recycled. This would make lamp disposal easier for the generator since they could use a bill of lading for the transportation in lieu of a hazardous waste manifest. The Conditional Exclusion (CE) option would allow generators to dispose of lamps in a municipal landfill or send the lamps to a state-permitted, licensed mercury/lamp recycling plant.
The controversy stems from two issues: cost and the true effects of mercury on the environment through each disposal option. Proponents of the Universal Waste Option claim that the UWR will make the disposal cost of fluorescent lamps more economical for the generator since lamps will not be subject to hazardous-waste taxes and regulations. This method also offers the generator the least exposure to future liability and will ensure fewer mercury air emissions due to the packaging and transportation requirements that reduce the occurrence of breakage (Best Management Practices).
Proponents of the CE option claim that the greatest level of emissions is during transport and not the final disposal, i.e. a landfill. Many favor adding the Best Management Practices to the CE option to negate this point. Another reason for the support of the CE option is it is considerably less expensive than the UWR option since lamps can be put in a municipal landfill. Supporters believe this encourages generators to make the switch to energy-efficient lighting. However, the total cost for disposal in a lighting retrofit is usually no more than 1 percent of the entire retrofit cost.
In the meantime There is still no decision between the two options. What does this mean for those generators disposing of fluorescent lights in a manner that complies with state regulations?
-A generator of hazardous waste has an inescapable liability. This means the generator must accept ultimate responsibility for how the waste is disposed.
-It is important to choose a permitted facility to eliminate as much potential future liability as possible. Auditing any facility before use is recommended.
-A few other features to look for are: insurance levels and types such as General and Pollution Liability, permits and approvals (not just an EPA number), and closure funding.
-It is just as important to ask these questions of the recycling facility as it is to make the choice to recycle. Remember, a low price may have a hidden long-term cost.
-Contact the state environmental agency for questions on how to handle spent fluorescent lamps.