Creating Lamp Recycling Opportunities with NEMA’s Mark Kohorst

July 14, 2014

JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome to another edition of Green is Good. We’re so honored to have with us today Mark Kohorst. He’s the Senior Manager for Environment, Health, and Safety at NEMA. NEMA stands for National Electrical Manufacturers Association. Welcome to Green is Good, Mark. MARK KOHORST: Happy to be here, John. Thanks. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Hey, Mark, we’re going to be talking about lamp recycling today, and for our listeners out there that want to follow along, they can go to LampRecycle.org. But, Mark, before we get going and talking about the importance of lamp recycling, I’d love you to share a little bit about your bio and journey leading up to becoming the Senior Manager for Environment, Health and Safety at NEMA. MARK KOHORST: Well, sure. I’ve been here for nine years so I’ve basically been involved in environmental public health issues generally for upwards of 25. I’ve done work related to legislation, regulation, litigation, and I started my career, actually, at the U.S. EPA in the Office of Water way back in the ’80s. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, and how’d you end up at NEMA? What pushed you in that direction? MARK KOHORST: Well, I was doing a lot of consulting on environmental issues, primarily in regulation and legislation and then saw this opening and it was a great fit with a very good sort of important and progressive industry so it just happened from there. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, and so talk a little bit about NEMA. Who is NEMA? So our listeners out there get a good background on who NEMA is as an organization. MARK KOHORST: Well as you said, we’re the National Electrical Manufacturers Association Basically, we are the principal U.S.-based trade group, we’re a trade association, for manufacturers of electrical products from A to Z and that basically means anything used to help generate, transmit, distribute electricity as well as end use products as well so if you’re a U.S. based company and you manufacture something that helps bring electricity to the world, you probably should be a member of our association. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, and since you guys are the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, what is your role with regards to lamp and lamp recycling? MARK KOHORST: Well, one of our divisions, one of our product sections, is lighting products and within that, we have what we call lamps. That’s the traditional industry term for a light bulb. When you say lamp and you’re in the industry, you mean the bulb and that goes all the way back to Thomas Edison so we represent the major manufacturers of light bulbs and all the other components of lighting and that’s GE, Philips, Sylvania, all the household names. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, got it, got it, so in terms of lamp recycling and I’m on your website now and it is really a really food and educational and really colorful and well done website and again, for our listeners out there that want to follow along, it’s LampRecycle.org. What are mercury containing lights and why is it necessary to recycle them? I’m a little bit confused because there’s so many different opportunities out there in terms of lamps and light bulbs. Explain to our listeners where is there mercury and why do we have to recycle these lamps? MARK KOHORST: Yeah, those are important questions, John, and you’re right. The whole lighting world is in a period of great transition. It’s been changing an awful lot over the past decade or two. Mercury containing lights are basically lamps that are based on a technology that requires a very, very small amount of mercury to work and the important thing about them is they’re very efficient. They produce light in a far less wasteful way. They use far less energy when they do so, so the traditional old incandescent lamp, the Thomas Edison bulb that we all know, they do not contain mercury but they’re highly inefficient and for that reason, as you and your listeners may know, the federal government is phasing them out. They’ve established standards that manufacturers have to meet that basically are making those old bulbs obsolete. Their current replacement for the past decade or so has been these squirrely what we call compact fluorescent lamps or CFLs and you’re probably familiar with them. Manufacturers and people have been buying them for a lot of years now and they do contain a very small amount of mercury and they’re far more efficient. They last a lot longer and they use a lot less energy than the older bulbs. Also, when you say fluorescent lights, you also mean the tubes, which are probably over your head right now and in virtually every big commercial building in the world so why do you need to recycle them? Because of the fact that they contain mercury and you don’t want those kind of products going into a landfill. It’s a very, very small amount of mercury but generally it’s something that you want to dispose of properly so that mercury doesn’t go into the environment. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wait a second. So, CFLs, fluorescent light tubes, should all light bulbs and lamps be recycled? Is that the general proposition or just these certain categories? MARK KOHORST: Just these types that contain mercury, so that would be CFLs. It would be the linear tubes, the long tubes, and then it would be the other types of outdoor lights and stadium lights and what we call HID, High Intensity Discharge. Very few of them are used in homes so people don’t generally need to know about them. Those are commercial products but yes, if it’s an efficient fluorescent light bulb, it has mercury in it and we strongly recommend that they be recycled. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, got it, so can you talk a little bit about what are the recycling opportunities for our listeners out there in terms of who can actually pick up these lamps or how do they send them back to a responsible recycler? How does this all work now? MARK KOHORST: Well, you can basically divide the world into two sectors. One is the big commercial industrial institutional world, commercial buildings and so on where you have all the linear tubes and the industrial lighting and so forth. Those lamps and the disposition of them is controlled by federal law. Any large generator of lamps, in other words, any large building, any large institution must, by federal law, recycle those lamps and there’s a whole industry of lamp recyclers that services those generators so if you’re a commercial building owner or manager, if you work for a university, a school system, and you have large numbers of these commercial lights to get rid of, you call a recycling company. They will service you anywhere in the country and they have all sorts of services to get those lamps from you and then recycle them properly to recover the mercury. The other half of the world, and that’s what we’re dealing with here, are the homeowners, you and me, and we’ve got our CFLs and we’ve got our light bulbs in our home and we take them out because they burn out and now we have the question of what to do with them and there are opportunities. There are options available to consumers but laws such as this one in Washington that we’re going to talk about today have to increase the number of those opportunities, make the recycling more convenient and available to consumers. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Okay, so let’s go into the laws then. Can you share with us and our listeners the Washington law? What does that mean and what do the laws look like across the United States? MARK KOHORST: Well, Washington was the third state to pass a law to do this and what it does is it sets up a framework by which the industry is going to set up a statewide system of collection points and they will be in retail outlets such as Home Depot and Lowe’s and places like that, many of which are currently doing this voluntarily, by the way. They’re already recycling but this will increase the number. It’ll broaden the network. It’ll make sure that there are options available across the state in all counties and basically it’s aimed at plugging that gap that I mentioned before to ensure that consumers, homeowners have a place to go that’s relatively where they can drop these lamps off and make sure that they’re properly disposed. That’s the intent of the Washington law, to set up a statewide program, make it available, and make it apparent, do education and outreach so people know about it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And, you said it’s the third state that’s created a law like this? MARK KOHORST: That’s right. Vermont and Maine also have laws in place but they’re a little bit different in terms of financing and certain complex elements of the law but Washington is certainly by far the biggest state and it’s a little bit of a different model than those two states. JOHN SHEGERIAN: So, it’s going to be a little bit, sounds like, the takeback program that these states starting pushing back in 2001, two, and three with regards to electronics, banning those from landfills. Right, right, so what’s your visibility? Is this going to become a national type of law mark or is this going to continue to go state by state and just be the rage across the United States? How do you foresee this with three states on board now? MARK KOHORST: Well, I suspect other states may want to pick up where Washington left off. They may see this as appropriate for our citizens as well, not quite sure. We’re going to see how that goes but the prospect of a national law is kind of tough. The politics are much more complicated and the one thing to keep in mind, the good news, is that the vast majority of lamps containing mercury and the vast majority of mercury in the lighting sector are in that big commercial industrial arena that I told you about. That’s really where the impact is. It’s important to get lamps from consumers but it’s the big generators, the thousands and thousands of linear lamps coming out of commercial buildings and so on that really need to be managed and they are. They’re already covered by federal law and many state laws. JOHN SHEGERIAN: For our listeners that just joined us, we’re honored to have with us today Mark Kohorst. He is the Senior Manager for Environment, Health, and Safety for NEMA and to learn more about all the great work he’s doing and NEMA’s doing, you can go to www.lamprecycle.org. Let’s talk a little bit about stewardship. Obviously, this is good stewardship that these laws are coming into play and that large brands like you mentioned, Home Depot and others, are now going to be doing takeback programs to allow United States citizens to avail themselves and give them a convenient and accessible place to recycle their lamps from their homes. Mark, what is a stewardship organization mean with regards to lamp recycling? MARK KOHORST: Well, that’s kind of a centerpiece of this law, John. The way it works is manufacturers, meaning my member companies, PE and Osram and Philips, and so forth, have to designate a stewardship organization to implement the law and a stewardship organization is a nonprofit. It’s sort of an entity created for the purpose of implementing the provisions and the law and they include setting up this network of collection sites, handling the financing, overseeing and implementing the education and the outreach to make people aware of it and so forth, so it becomes the sort of controlling body and, as I said, it’s a nonprofit. It will be funded by proceeds through a mechanism set up in the law and it will be sort of the face of the program in the state. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Gotcha, gotcha, and let’s talk about this. Obviously, thought leaders or industry leaders or environmental NGO folks thought this was a problem. Can you explain why these states have started passing these laws and how big is this potential problem, Mark, of inappropriate lamp disposal and what is the opportunity, commercially speaking, for the ecopreneurs and entrepreneurs out there that want to become part of the sustainability revolution and become lamp recyclers? MARK KOHORST: Well, as I said, there is a network of lamp recyclers, the sort of industry already in existence. They have their own association. They’re mostly small businesses and they’re located around the country. It’s an opportunity like any other. When the laws such as Washington come into place, I guess there’s always an opportunity for those who want to come in and say we can come in and process this and manage these lamps better than anybody else and cheaper than anybody else and try to make their niche so it does provide that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: How big is the problem? MARK KOHORST: Well, the way I would say it is this: It’s hard to tell because we don’t really know how many lamps are being recycled. We have some data but we can say pretty certain that the percentage of lamps that are actually recycled of those that are out there going into the trash is pretty low and it needs to be increased and in Washington, that’s one of the motivators behind this bill. Consumers especially, there’s been a lot of work to get people interested in recycling behavior and on board with what they have to do but the numbers are still pretty low and everybody wants to see them increase. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Speaking of that, do you have sheer numbers on how many lamps are recycled each year? MARK KOHORST: Well, we have them for certain states. Massachusetts has a program, for example, and the numbers are upwards of 6 million or so in the past couple years. It’s in that range and then of course, you have to measure that against how many are actually going into the trash and we don’t really know that. We only estimate it from past sales, but the percentage in Massachusetts is fairly good and it’s probably higher than it is in most places but certainly the numbers are in the millions. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow, and by the way, you mentioned there is already an industry of lamp recyclers and again, on NEMA’s great website, LampRecycle.org, there’s a button right at the top. I’m there now. You press the button and it says lamp recyclers and a whole list of lamp recyclers drops down. For those of you out there who want to recycle your lamps, both in a private or business setting, all the recyclers, all the resources are right there for you across the United States, so with regards to businesses, you spoke a little bit about this at the top of the show in terms of, let’s just take office buildings. I wasn’t quite clear. Office buildings are covered by the state laws or are they more covered by other regulations that have forced them to get with it and adopt good practices before homeowners. MARK KOHORST: If they’re of a certain size, they’re covered by federal law for quite a while. There are laws that hazard waste of all types, not just mercury and lamps, so they have a federal law that they are required to comply with and that makes them set up arrangements so that when they are relamping, replacing lighting in their buildings, they have to make sure that those lamps are recycled and handled properly. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Got it, got it. I understand now. With regards to lamp recycling and light bulb recycling, Mark, what’s the visibility on the U.S. versus other countries? Are we behind? Are we ahead? Are we even? Compare us to Asia or Europe or Canada or South America. Where do we fall in the sustainability revolution? Do we have a lot of work to do ahead of us here? MARK KOHORST: Well, as usual, it depends who your benchmark is. I would say in comparison with the European Union, we’re probably a little behind. They have a continental directive, so to speak. It’s like a law that governs across the entire European Union that requires electronics products of all kinds to be recycled, including lamps, and that’s been in place for a decade or so, so they are a little bit ahead. We have in this country done a lot of work, the industry has and activists have and states have, to generate lamp recycling over the last few years but we haven’t really put it in law as much as the Europeans have. Compare it again to other parts of the world and we’re probably quite a bit ahead so it really depends on the jurisdiction and so forth but concern over mercury is a global issue now so you’re seeing activity pretty much throughout the developed world and even in other lesser developed places. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Mark, we’re down to the last minute. Anything else people should know about energy-efficient lighting before we say goodbye? MARK KOHORST: Well, the good news is this is a temporary problem because mercury lamps, as people know, are being replaced by even better lamps. LEDs are rapidly coming on to the market so as we get and take of these mercury lamps as they come into the trash, we’re all moving to even better lamps that last a very long time and provide great service. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Well, thank you for your service, Mark, and thank you for sharing the story today about lamp and light bulb recycling. It’s so important that listeners out there do so and please go to LampRecycle.org, find your lamp recyclers in your area, and recycle your lamps. Thank you, Mark, for shining a light on the very important topic of responsible lamp recycling. You are truly living proof that green is good. MARK KOHORST: My pleasure, John. Thank you.