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UNH Saves Energy Then Recycles CFLs

By Jody Record, Campus Journal Editor
February 6, 2008

Sixty years ago, when commercial lighting meant 4-foot tubes covered with a sheet of hard plastic or metal fins, no one would have ever thought that fluorescent lights would one day be “in.”

But as the impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the environment grew, so did the use of fluorescent lighting and its counterpart, CFLs.

At UNH, the use of these energy-efficient lights along with fluorescent tubes has been common practice for several years. In fact, facilities has a policy that bars the purchase of traditional light bulbs unless there is a reason CFLs can’t be used.

A CFL uses 75 percent less energy and lasts up to 10 times longer than a regular light bulb. Over time, using one CFL can keep about 400 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere.

That means if everyone in the country replaced just one light bulb with a CFL, it would be like taking 800,000 cars off the road and would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes.

The catch with these sounds-too-good-to-be true lights is that they contain mercury. Recycling spent bulbs keeps the toxic metal out of the environment. EHS does just that through a universal waste accumulation area where some 2,000 CFLs and more than 25,000 feet of fluorescent tubes are collected and sent for recycling every year.

David Gillum photo

“UNH is required to manage fluorescent light bulbs according to state law,” says David Gillum, assistant director of Environmental Health and Safety. “We are very serious about the proper use, storage, and disposal of these bulbs because of their potential impact to human health and the environment.”

According to the EPA, almost 700 million fluorescent light bulbs are thrown away annually, accounting for between 2 and 4 tons of mercury being released into the environment. If those same bulbs were taken to a recycling center, the mercury could be recovered and reused in new bulbs.

The amount of mercury in a CFL is about 5 milligrams—enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen or 1/100th of the amount used in a fever thermometer. It’s the mercury in the light bulb that makes the vapor that causes the phosphor coating on the glass to fluoresce. Which makes the metal critical: no mercury, no light.

Environmental regulations mandate that burned out or broken CFLs be treated like hazardous waste. That means they can’t be thrown in the trash. The university relies on facilities, housekeeping and EHS to help manage all the burned out lights on campus so they wind up being recycled or taken to a hazardous waste collection site where the mercury, glass, metal end caps and phosphor powder can be separated and reused.

UNH officials caution faculty, staff and students to call facilities if they should break a CFL.

“We really want people to know the proper way to handle these bulbs. Only personnel trained in the steps to clean up a broken bulb should do it,” says Gillum.

In the event of breaking a CFL when you are off campus, follow the EPA guidelines

that suggest turning off all fans and ventilation systems, opening a window, and leaving the room for at least 15 minutes.

Don’t vacuum up the broken pieces. Wear safety gear—gloves, glasses and a dust mask—when picking up the glass. Use cardboard or a dustpan and brush that you will then throw out to get dust and smaller pieces. For the fine particles, use the sticky side of duct or masking tape followed by a wet cloth.

Put all the material in an air-tight container, including any clothing or footwear that gets contaminated. Wash hands or shower afterward. To dispose of the container, contact EHS at 2-4041.

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