Life Cycle Efficiency | Recycling CFLs in Minnesota
CEE promotes energy-saving technologies with the understanding that they reduce greenhouse gas emissions. But can we assume that these products have a complete positive environmental impact after they’re installed? In this guest post, Emma Shriver asks Judy Thommes and Kristen Funk to discuss CEE’s efforts to lower the barriers to compact fluorescent bulbs recycling around the state.
In 2008, the CFL market was growing quickly as energy efficiency campaigns increased. As a result, more households were aware of CFLs and used them in their homes. Despite higher usage, knowledge regarding their need to recycle them was low and there were few free places to recycle the bulbs. Recognizing the need to educate the public, CEE partnered with Great River Energy and received an Environmental Assistance grant from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to create a pilot CFL recycling program.
Emma: CEE’s mission is to promote energy efficiency. Why did we initiate a recycling project?
CEE’s programs address lighting on a daily basis. Our experience with business owners and homeowners indicated that many people didn’t understand that CFLs need to be recycled at the end of their life. Even when they did know, they were unaware of where they could recycle bulbs or were unwilling to pay to have them recycled, which was the prevalent model with first generation CFL recycling programs.
Because we encourage people to install CFLs to reduce their energy use, we felt it was important to not only educate the business owners and homeowners we work with on proper disposal, but to provide an easily accessible, free, and well-publicized drop-off point.
Emma: What were the main goals of the project?
Our goals were to:
- Work with at least one retailer to host a pilot of the CFL recycling program. Menards was the only retailer that agreed to participate. The program was free to consumers and Menards was reimbursed for their recycling expenses by GRE for the length of the pilot. GRE negotiated a contract with Green Lights Recycling to collect the CFLs, distribute program materials and answer questions from Menards team members. In addition, Green Lights Recycling agreed to provide collection data so GRE and CEE could assess the pilot’s success.
- Convene a group of industry stakeholders. The goal was to reach a consensus on how CFL recycling should be addressed in Minnesota and who should pay for it. The stakeholder group included representatives from major lighting manufacturers, retail associations, utilities, and recyclers.
- Determine the level of CFL knowledge among consumers. CEE and GRE completed a survey of Minnesota residents to better understand the penetration of CFLs in the marketplace and how much Minnesota households knew about the technology. We wanted to determine what percentage of Minnesota households was using CFLs, and whether residents knew they needed to be recycled. A key finding was that while almost three quarters of households surveyed were using CFLs, only 39 percent knew that recycling CFLs was required by law.
Emma: How did this pilot help set the standard for CFL recycling?
We believe the demonstration project with Menards helped transform the CFL recycling experience for consumers in Minnesota. First generation CFL recycling programs were sporadic at best and often charged a fee when consumers dropped off bulbs. They also weren’t well-publicized. In our opinion, this discouraged consumers from recycling CFLs even if they were aware of existing options. Over the course of the two-year pilot program at Menards, we saw monthly CFL drop-offs increase by over 60 percent, from just over 3,300 bulbs per month to more than 5,300 bulbs per month.
As part of the pilot, Menards agreed to offer a program that was free to consumers and publicized in their stores using marketing materials we developed as part of the grant program. After the pilot program Menards ultimately decided to maintain the program after the grant money was gone because they recognized it benefited them to offer the service. It created competition in the retail sector - customers who needed to drop off CFLs went to Menards. Today, most retailers will accept CFLs free of charge even if they were purchased from another store.
Emma: Did industry stakeholders agree on how CFL recycling should be paid for and carried out in the future?
The stakeholder group was less successful in their efforts to come to a consensus. All parties recognized the need to make sure that CFLs were recycled properly. However, no one was willing to accept responsibility for funding recycling programs. Everyone felt that the funding should some from another source.
Emma: How do you feel about the program as a whole?
Overall, the program was successful. It identified the gaps in consumers’ knowledge about recycling CFLs and showed that efforts to educate the public when coupled with an easily-accessible, no-cost program can have a significant impact on behavior.
In this case it also had benefits for participating retailers that ultimately outweighed the costs of offering a CFL recycling program.
Image credit: David Seibold