Would you like a side of mercury with that light bulb?

From the Richmond Times-Dispatch: Kaine unveils energy plan [emphasis mine]:

Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine today unveiled an energy plan designed to promote the state’s energy independence and educate citizens on conservation.


Kaine released the Virginia Energy Plan at Virginia Commonwealth University, where Stephen Walz, Senior Advisor for Energy Policy to the Governor, presented the University with 1,800 compact fluorescent bulbs for installation on campus.

Virginia recently purchased 27,000 compact fluorescent bulbs to replace incandescent bulbs in state facilities. The bulbs should save Virginia taxpayers over $125,000 per year, and reduce electric use equivalent to the amount used by 1,300 homes. Their use will reduce carbon dioxide emissions by over 1,100 metric tons per year.

The Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy will be distributing 20,000 additional compact fluorescent bulbs at the State Fair of Virginia as part of Energy Conservation Awareness Week and to highlight Virginia’s first Energy Star Sales Tax Holiday from October 5th through October 8th.

One problem that isn’t addressed, from National Public Radio: CFL Bulbs Have One Hitch: Toxic Mercury:

But the bulbs contain small amounts of mercury, a neurotoxin, and the companies and federal government haven’t come up with effective ways to get Americans to recycle them.

“The problem with the bulbs is that they’ll break before they get to the landfill. They’ll break in containers, or they’ll break in a dumpster or they’ll break in the trucks. Workers may be exposed to very high levels of mercury when that happens,” says John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, the trade group for the people who handle trash and recycling.

Skinner says when bulbs break near homes, they can contaminate the soil.

Mercury is a potent neurotoxin, and it’s especially dangerous for children and fetuses. Most exposure to mercury comes from eating fish contaminated with mercury,

Some states, cities and counties have outlawed putting CFL bulbs in the trash, but in most states the practice is legal.

Pete Keller works for Eco Lights Northwest, the only company in Washington state that recycles fluorescent lamps. He says it is illegal to put the bulbs in the trash in some counties in Washington, but most people still throw them out.

“I think most people do want to recycle, but if it’s not made easy, it doesn’t happen,” Keller says. “And they’re small enough to fit in a trash can. So by nature, I think most people are not recyclers. So if it’s small enough to fit in a trash can, that’s where it ends up.”

Experts agree that it’s not easy for most people to recycle these bulbs. Even cities that have curbside recycling won’t take the bulbs. So people have to take them to a hazardous-waste collection day or a special facility.

The head of the Environmental Protection Agency program concedes that not enough has been done to urge people to recycle CFL bulbs and make it easier for them to do so.

“I share your frustration that there isn’t a national infrastructure for the proper recycling of this product,” says Wendy Reed, who manages EPA’s Energy Star program. That programs gives the compact bulbs its “energy star” seal of approval.


Reed says the agency has been urging stores that sell the bulbs to help recycle them.

“EPA is actively engaged with trying to find a solution that works for these retailers around recycling the product, because it’s really, really important,” Reed says.

But so far, she says the biggest sellers of the bulbs haven’t stepped up to the plate.


EPA also has asked retailers to sell the lower mercury compact bulbs that some manufacturers are making. Engineers say you can’t cut mercury out completely.

Some other big companies have started paying attention to the recycling problem.

General Electric has been making compact fluorescents for 20 years. Now the company admits that the little bit of mercury in each bulbs could become a real problem if sales balloon as expected.

“Given what we anticipate to be the significant increase in the use of these products, we are now beginning to look at, and shortly we’ll be discussing with legislators, possibly a national solution here,” says Earl Jones, a senior counsel for General Electric.

Besides the mercury, why is the state government spending approximately $70,000 (20,000 bulbs at $3.50 a piece) to hand out light bulbs when the Governor has already asked state agencies to cut their budgets by 5%?

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