Terracycle Leads the Way in Fluorescent Bulb Recycling

Recycling goes well beyond aluminum cans, plastic bottles and cardboard. Today’s businesses are becoming more environmentally aware of warehouse and manufacturing materials that are typically just thrown away.

The costs of recycling, however, can be a burden to a company’s bottom line. The amount of extra labor involved in proper recycling can be significant. Businesses are always looking for ways to reduce operating costs as well as producing a more eco-friendly company.

While there is no easy solution, every effort counts. One recycling company in Lisle, IL has decided to focus on an everyday item that many people don’t ever give a second thought. Fluorescent light bulbs.

Fluorescent Bulb Disposal

Terrracycle Regulated Waste saw an opportunity to offer companies a safe and easy way to dispose of spent fluorescent bulbs while adhering to strict recycling regulations. Originally named Air Cycle, the well established recycling company was acquired by Terracycle in 2017.

I spoke with Joe Day, Manager of Strategic Partnerships of about their relationship with Terracycle, recycling programs and the innovative lamp crushing machine, the Bulb Eater®.

Day has been with the company for 18 years was fortunate enough to witness the evolution of the Bulb Eater. Developed in the early 90s, the Bulb Eater inhales a 4 foot fluorescent lamp and crushes the material, then holds the elements in a sealed container. Its filter system collects the mercury and phosphorous powder safely, resulting in a non-detectable level of mercury vapor emission within the operators’ breathing zone.

"The first version was basically a 5 gallon poly pail. The inside components were more like a weed whacker,” said Day. "It catered to smaller companies looking to properly dispose of 4 foot bulbs.”

As the Bulb Eater gained popularity, the EPA and OSHA began to take notice.

"Each organization urged us to develop a more robust filtration system and improved recycling services,” said Day.

In the late 90s, the Bulb Eater evolved into its modern day version. Today’s machine utilizes a vacuum and 5 stage filtration system. The weed whacker has been replaced with a thick chain. It crushes spent lamps of any length, u-tubes, and compact fluorescent lights (CFL) into 100% recyclable material while capturing over 99.99% of the vapors released. The system, which is mounted onto a 55-gallon container, can hold up to 1350 4-foot fluorescent lamps.

In 1999, the Bulb Eater’s popularity really took an upswing after being named a "Show Stopper” at the National Engineering Trade Show in Chicago.

"It made a huge splash and gave us some positive exposure. Sales went up from there,” said Day.

Today, there are over 8000 Bulb Eaters in use around the world. Large companies such as Jones Lang LaSalle, the US Army, Amtrak and Coca Cola have jumped on board to utilize this recycling power tool.

So where does the recycled material end up?

"Each element within a bulb can be recycled properly. Mercury used to be very valuable, but as demand declined, the prices plummeted. Phosphorus powder actually has rare earth elements that can be used in electronic devices. By reusing these materials, we can reduce our reliance on foreign entities such as China,” says Day.

Since many states have banned bulbs that contain mercury from being dumped in landfills, recycling has become mandatory. This has made it tough on how to dispose of fluorescent bulbs.

Once full, the Bulb Eater drum will be picked up by a fully permitted truck. Certificates of Recycling are then provided once the lamps are recycled.

Day adds, "As the business grew, we have aligned ourselves with various recycling companies. These companies will take not only crushed bulbs, but batteries, ballast and electronic waste disposal.”

Nothing toxic ends up in a landfill.

Cost Savings

Typically when recycling fluorescents, companies must pack up individual bulbs into a box and schedule a pick up from recyclers. The time and cost of labor to box up lamps, then pay to be removed can add up quickly.

Terracycle claims the Bulb Crusher will reduce labor by up to 20 hours per 1,000 lamps and save up to 50% on recycling costs. It also reduces the amount of valuable square footage needed to store spent bulbs. With the Bulb Eater, the footprint can be reduced by 80%.

The Bulb Crusher creates a safer work environment, save on labor costs, and saves money on recycling costs. The EPA estimates that 2-3% of bulbs are accidental broken while boxing lamps prior to pickup. The 0.001% mercury vapor emission from the Bulb Eater lamp 5 stage filter system keeps workers safe and liability to a minimum.

Bulb Eater Features

The name Bulb Eater says it all. Within 1 second, any length fluorescent tube will be pulverized into crumbs. The vacuum system is mounted to a 55 gallon drum and bulbs are slid down a "throat.” A long tube that the operator can safely insert spent bulbs as they are ground.

For proper operation, an LED display called Intelli Technology assists with machine diagnostics, potential safety hazards maintenance and filter change-outs.

Terracycle also includes an online training program. Each new machine comes with a thumbdrive that holds a training session and a quiz. Once the trainee passes the quiz, the thumbdrive can be downloaded into the Bulb Eater. The machine will not operate unless the training has been completed. A unique safety precaution that ensures proper usage and reduces liability.

About Terracycle

Terracycle Regulated Waste and Air Cycle are just a part of a larger, worldwide recycling effort. As the push for more climate change regulation is forcing us to deal with our trash, more recycling innovations are on the horizon.

The entire Terracycle corporation promotes the concept of "Eliminating the Idea of Waste®” by recycling the "non-recyclable.”

In 2017, Terracycle was looking into additional streams of business. The recycling company discovered Air Cycle and a partnership was born.

Acquiring Air Cycle was not only an important step in TerraCycle’s strategy of growth and diversification, but the Bulb Eater also marked a valuable addition to their existing repertoire of turn-key recycling solutions.

Since TerraCycle’s voluntary recycling initiatives, like the Sponsored Waste and Zero Waste Box programs, involve on-demand collection solutions that are shipped to TerraCycle for processing, the similar Bulb Eater system melded well with the company’s existing offerings.

By introducing the Bulb Eater and EasyPak systems essentially filled a void in TerraCycle’s existing recycling solutions.

Since 2001, Air Cycle’s parent company, Terracycle has taken on the challenge of recycling all waste, turning it back into raw material and make new products. It currently operates in over 20 countries and the program is used by over 60 million people.

Founder Tom Szaky was only a 20 year old freshman at Princeton when he came up with the idea. It began with producing organic fertilizer by packaging liquid worm poop in used soda bottles. From those simple beginnings, TerraCycle has grown into one of the fastest growing green companies in the world.

The philosophy of Szaky and Terracycle is that nearly everything can be recycled. By using only circular methods, such as reuse, upcycling or recycling, the company finds ways to repurpose the waste through their various programs. By volume, over 97% of the waste that is collected is repurposed. No waste is ever thrown into a landfill or incinerated.

As for the items that Terracyle will collect, basics like paper, plastic and aluminum are common, but also items you would never imagine could be recycled. Things like sports balls, art supplies, candy wrappers, batteries and plastic action figures. Even cigarettes. Terracycle has developed programs for all these hard to get rid of items.

As for the Bulb Eater, it’s doing its part in building a sustainable nation. Don’t discount the little things. Light bulbs do not need to be just thrown away. So, the next time you see those fluorescent bulbs flickering above your head, save the planet and shove it down the throat of a Bulb Eater.