One of the best things to come from Maine’s Department of Environmental Protection in recent years was a groundbreaking (or maybe bulb-breaking?) study of what happens when long-lasting compact fluorescent lightbulbs fracture and release their chemical innards.
CFL bulbs contain hazardous mercury, a dangerous facet of the popular bulbs the DEP examined in its first-in-the-nation effort last year. The agency found disposing of these bulbs required significant precautions, especially if they break within the home.
This poses a quandary, as another state agency — Efficiency Maine — has been wildly successful in getting Mainers to buy CFL bulbs through its rebate program. While this has been a boon for energy efficiency, it has also introduced millions of these potentially hazardous bulbs into homes and businesses.
A burden of this success is now developing a plan for disposing of CFL bulbs safely, with minimal risk of seeing their internal chemicals released into the environment. While these bulbs do last longer, they don’t last forever. Eventually, the reality of a million dead, mercury-laden bulbs will face the state.
Lawmakers seem to recognize this coming problem. Last week, the Natural Resources Committee voted 9-2 in favor of LD 973. The bill would create a disposal plan for CFL bulbs based on Maine’s successful electronic waste law, which puts the cost of recycling bulbs on their manufacturers. In other words, if you make it, you pay to trash it.
This is a sensible and fair solution for the problem of CFL bulbs. While placing added costs on business is imperfect policy, the makers of CFL bulbs should have no objection. Their sales have benefited from the rebates offered on their products by Efficiency Maine. Paying a proportion (according to market share) of the disposal cost of their CFL bulbs looks like an equitable trade-off for these rebates.
Few can disagree with the necessity of a smart disposal plan. Efficiency Maine issued more than 1.1 million rebates on CFL bulbs in 2008, according to its annual report. This success foreshadows the disposal problems to follow.
The most prevalent avenue for disposal is a $1 fee, collected at most Maine transfer stations. While this is a simple policy, it’s far from comprehensive. A new CFL bulb recycling pilot system — consisting of drop-boxes at stores that sell bulbs — has earned accolades as a progressive model, yet it has potential to cost taxpayers dearly as recycling of bulbs increases.
The question is, who should pay? Given the support from Efficiency Maine in selling the bulbs, it seems fair to make manufacturers pay for their disposal, at a price of pennies for each one.
Maine’s been smart on CFL bulbs, both through incentives for use and warning about their danger. The policy prescribed by LD 973 is a next logical step, that lawmakers should now endorse.

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