Thursday, February 08, 2007

Energy conservation and the mercury question

I read in the newspaper that Wal-Mart aims to make a big footprint in energy conservation by pushing the sale of compact fluorescent tubes in place of standard incandescent light bulbs. These compacts last years longer and they use less energy, so even at the higher initial cost the economics would seem attractive. What I haven't seen addressed is how to dispose of the tubes when they do burn out. Remember, fluorescent tubes contain elemental mercury -- a poison when it is released into the air. Just as you shouldn't touch the insides of a broken tube or breathe the dust when you clean it up, you shouldn't dispose of tubes where the insides will make their way into the water or the ground. And if we simply send them to the landfill, isn't that what's going to happen?

I called my local Department of Solid Waste Management (SWM) to find out what to do with fluorescent tubes. They switched me to the Miami-Dade County 311 operator, who gave me the address of the nearest of two hazardous-waste disposal sites in the county. I drove to the one at 23707 SW 97th Ave., which is just behind that "mount trashmore" that forms the backdrop to Black Point Marina.

What I found there -- if I was indeed at the right place -- was not very encouraging to anyone who believes in safe disposal of these fluorescent tubes. The SWM people had a sort of a trailer office there, and some open-sided tents with barrels and tables where we're supposed to leave our chemical wastes or chemical-containing hardware, such as computers and TV sets. There was some of that stuff, but no fluorescents that I could see. No attendant was there so I left my tubes on the cart where the sign invited me to leave stuff, and drove away, hoping that whoever returned would do the right thing with my leavings. I'm betting darn few South Dade residents ever trek out to this place with their junk. Where does it go? Probably right into the trash bin, where it will be smashed and ground up with the other stuff spread out on the growing landfill.

But I did find out that Home Depot promises to recycle any fluorescent tubes its customers bring in when they buy new ones. According to the supervisor I talked to at the Pinecrest store, the used tubes are shut away in a locker until a recycling company called 3E comes to take them away.

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