A growing number of Northeast electrical distributors are offering fluorescent lamp recycling services to their customers.

Over the past two years, nearly 50 New England distributors, including branches of Granite City Electric Supply Co., Quincy, Mass.; Electrical Wholesalers Inc., Hartford, Conn.; Consolidated Electrical Distributors Inc., Westlake Village, Calif.; W.W. Grainger Inc., Lake Forest, Ill.; and WESCO Distribution, Pittsburgh, have joined with licensed hazardous waste facilities to provide their customers with convenient recycling opportunities.

The distributors' programs range from selling prepaid mailing boxes that customers send directly to a lamp recycler, to complete customer service that includes the pickup of spent lamps.

“Encouraging our customers to recycle mercury-containing lamps and providing a simple solution to accomplish this is the right thing to do for the environment and customer service,” said Jim Baines, account representative for WESCO-Bangor.

Baines launched a recycling program at WESCO's Bangor branch after Maine began requiring all mercury-containing lamps to be recycled or handled as hazardous waste in July 2002. Additional WESCO branches in Biddeford, Portland, and Rockland, Maine, now offer the program as well. Using the same trucks that deliver products to its customers, WESCO picks up spent lamps and stores them at its facility until the recycler collects them.

Greg Smith, a regional manager for Granite City Electric Supply, got into the recycling business in 1996 when some of his more environmentally conscious customers began asking for the service. As one of the first electrical distributors to offer recycling, Smith saw it as a way to create a niche in the market. Granite City makes a “reasonable average profit margin” from the program, but Smith stresses that the real benefit of the program is “receiving orders for lamps that we wouldn't have if we didn't recycle.”

Like WESCO, Granite City provides full customer service, selling fiber drums for lamp storage and picking them up when full. Its business partner, Northeast Lamp Recycling, collects the spent lamps from Granite City's locations about every two months. Granite City offers the service at its branch locations in Vermont and New Hampshire, formally JG Temple, but plans to extend the program to all 18 branches in the Northeast over the next year.

“Most commercial entities recognize that five to 10 years down the road mercury lamps could become a liability, and are choosing to be proactive,” said Smith.

When disposed of improperly, mercury vapor seeps from fluorescent lamps, contributing to mercury pollution in the environment. A potent neurotoxin, mercury has become such an environmental problem that all of the Northeastern states (and more than 40 nationally) have issued advisories warning pregnant women and young children not to eat certain species of fish.

Under the Environmental Protection Agency's Universal Waste Rule, businesses must manage used mercury-containing lamps, including fluorescent, high-intensity discharge (HID) and mercury-vapor lamps, as hazardous wastes. All of the Northeastern states have adopted EPA's Universal Waste Rule, and some have passed even more stringent laws. Vermont, Maine, Connecticut and Rhode Island prohibit all mercury-containing lamps, including the lower-mercury lamps, from being tossed in the trash bin.

In addition to offering recycling for mercury-containing lamps, WESCO offers training on Universal Waste handling. “That has been a big plus for our business as well. We do charge for that, and we make margin on that.”

Lamp manufacturers also are actively promoting lamp recycling. Paul Walitsky, manager, sustainability, Philips Lighting, Somerset, N.J., said his company encourages its distributors to work with recyclers. He said some distributors sell a prepaid box that the customer fills up and then sends back to the recycler via UPS.

“In some cases, the distributor will introduce the recycler to the end-user. In some cases they are partners. In cases like WESCO, they take the lamps back to their place, and then the recycler only has to go to the distributor. He doesn't have to go to all the end-users. So it makes it more efficient from an environmental and cost standpoint,” said Walitsky.

Currently more than 72 million (75 percent to 80 percent) spent fluorescent lamps are improperly discarded each year in the Northeast, according to the Association for Lighting and Mercury Recyclers. For more information, visit the association's Web site at www.almr.org.