Lawmakers stress education on florescent bulb recycling

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(Host) Compact florescent light bulbs use far less electricity than regular lights. But they also contain small amounts of mercury.

The toxic metal means the light bulbs can’t be thrown away in the trash. And some lawmakers say the public doesn’t know enough about the potential danger.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) The state estimates that Vermonters buy about a million compact florescent light bulbs a year. Each light bulb contains about 5 milligrams of mercury.

That may not be much of the hazardous metal. But you don’t want the stuff floating around your house if you break the bulb.

And the state doesn’t want them thrown the trash.

(Knaebel) “No one can throw these in the landfill in Vermont.”

(Dillon) Karen Knaebel is the mercury education and reduction coordinator for the department of environmental conservation. She has this advice for people who smash a light bulb in their home.

(Knaebel) “If it does break, you want to ventilate your area, and after about 15 minutes of ventilation you want to go in and just pick up the residue and put it into a zip lock bag.”

(Dillon) The state has been trying to educate the public about the light bulbs for several years.

You can dispose of the burned out bulbs during hazardous waste collection days at your local solid waste district. State officials have also set up a free bulb recycling service through the True Value and Ace Hardware chains.

Knaebel says Vermont is a leader in its mercury labeling and reduction programs.

(Knaebel) “I would certainly hate to cause people to be alarmed over something that is so energy efficient.”

(Dillon) But some lawmakers feel that the public doesn’t know enough about the mercury that’s in the bulbs. Dorset Republican Patty Komline says she learned the hard way.

(Komline) “I broke one in my kitchen. I used a wet paper towel to clean it up and then I put the towel in the trash, and you’re supposed to double bag it and then take it to a hazardous waste facility.”

(Dillon) Komline is a sponsor of a resolution that calls on Efficiency Vermont – which has subsidized the sale of thousands of bulbs – to do more to tell Vermonters about the potential risks.

(Komline) “My effort is just to educate the public that while these bulbs are providing a valuable resource to people we just need to know how to clean them up should they break, and also how to dispose of them properly. A lot of people just throw them in the trash, which is very serious.”

(Dillon) Nancy Wasserman is the deputy policy director for Efficiency Vermont. She says as Efficiency Vermont promotes the bulbs, it also includes information on disposal.

(Wasserman) “They save a tremendous amount of energy. They save a tremendous amount of money. They last a whole lot longer, and we need to weigh those considerations.”

(Dillon) And officials say that because of their energy saving potential, the compact florescent lights actually result in less mercury pollution in the environment overall.

The reason is that burning coal to produce power releases mercury, which then falls into lakes and streams.

For VPR News, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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