New Hampshire's program to recycle mercury-laced low-energy light bulbs is going dark due to budget cuts.
Funding runs out this month for a five-year-old program that allows residents to recycle long fluorescent light bulbs and compact fluorescent light bulbs at participating hardware stores.
Some municipal landfills accept the bulbs for recycle but many, including Manchester's, do not. The only two commercial recycling centers in the state are located on the seacoast and consumers would have to drive there and pay a quarter or more, per bulb, to recycle them.
"It's a real problem," says Paul Lockwood, pollution prevention supervisor for the state Department of Environmental Services. "It's against the law to put them in the garbage, so what do consumers do with them?"
Lockwood estimates that New Hampshire consumers generate 2.6 million spent CFLs and fluorescent light bars per year, containing a total of six pounds of mercury. The national Environmental Defense Fund says that one-seventh of a teaspoon of mercury can contaminate a 20-acre lake, making its fish inedible. Mercury can cause brain damage and pose other health risks to humans.
"When a lamp is broken, its mercury vaporizes," he said. "If it's broken in a Dumpster, it's released into the immediate environment," he said. If it gets into a landfill, it gets into the ground water. If it's incinerated, it ends up as an air emission."
DES officials say municipal leaders need to seize the recycling reins and make citizens aware that careless disposal of the bulbs is hazardous to humans and the environment. Even with the hardware store recycling program in place, only about 12 percent of bulbs bought by New Hampshire residents were recycled, said Dean Robinson, household hazardous waste program manager for DES.
About 43 True Value and Ace stores were participating in the program when the state put them on notice several months ago that it would be ending. True Value stores were the first to begin accepting spent bulbs in 2006, followed by Ace hardware stores in 2008. Between them, the stores had collected a total of 25,983 CFLs and 393,754 linear feet of straight fluorescent lamps through April 2011.
Chuck Aubin, co-owner of the Ace-affiliated Aubin Hardware in Manchester, said his store used to take in quite a few bulbs each week, enough to require weekly recycling trips. He said they made no money off the program, but participated for the convenience of their customers.
Aside from driving burned out bulbs to the recycling centers in Portsmouth and Dover, residents whose landfills don't take the fluorescent bulbs can bring them to their town's hazardous waste collection event. Lockwood said those typically are held just once a year.
The cost of the program from its outset was just under $40,000 for all five years, Lockwood said. The funding was provided by a company leasing a dam on the Connecticut River where heavy concentrations of mercury were found, but that agreement has ended. Lockwood said the state planned to pick up the cost but now can't afford it.
Lockwood said careless disposal of spent bulbs affects the environment in numerous ways and will erode years of progress.
"If DOT stops fixing potholes, you see the results right away," Lockwood said. "If state police cut patrols, you see results right away. Cut funding for the environment and you don't see the results as quickly. That's our fear. Programs that took 20 years to have a measurable environmental impact will stop, and we'll be where we were 20 years ago."