Sunday, August 01, 1999

Times catch up with light recycler


New EPA rules expected to triple firm's business

BY MIKE BOYER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        A lot of new entrepreneurs expect to get rich quick, but Harlan Drumm knows better.

        Six years ago, he invested more than $1.5 million to form USA Lamp & Ballast Recycling in Winton Place. It was Ohio's first fluorescent bulb recycling center, an alternative to dumping the bulbs — which contain toxic mercury — into landfills.

        “It was a slow deal,” Mr. Drumm said.

        But late last month, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency flipped the switch on fluorescent bulb recycling by adopting rules requiring large companies and government agencies to either recycle the bulbs or throw them into special hazardous-waste landfills. An estimated 600 million bulbs are tossed each year.

        Since then, the phones at USA Lamp's recycling plant at 5366 Este Ave. have been ringing constantly. The company, which won't disclose revenues, last year recycled about 2 million bulbs but expects that number to increase to more than 6 million annually.

        One of fewer than 50 certified EPA lamp recycling centers in the country, USA Lamp has gotten calls from as far as Florida inquiring about its recycling services.

        The 10-employee company plans to build a 1,200-square-foot addition to its 5,000-square-foot plant to serve as a storage area for the bulbs shipped in for recycling.

        “We operate one shift now, but we'll go to three shifts if we have to,” said Roger Dunn, sales manager.

        The new EPA rules make it easier for companies to recycle the bulbs, said Steve Kirschner, marketing manager.

        In its five years of operation, USA Lamp estimates it has recycled about 3,000 pounds of mercury, a bright, liquid metal which can cause kidney and brain damage in humans.

        Although USA Lamp's list of customers includes area universities, Procter & Gamble, Toyota Motor Manufacturing, Cinergy and the U.S. Postal Service, Mr. Kirschner said public awareness remains a big challenge.

        Before, companies had to take special precautions to ship the bulbs for recycling. “It used to cost $300 or $400 to ship bulbs from Newport, but now they can do it for $18.50,” he said.

        Mr. Drumm, who also operates a business cleaning rail and truck tanks for Procter & Gamble and other chemical companies, takes the change in USA Lamp's fortunes in stride.

        “It takes awhile to educate consumers,” he said. “I went down to Washington, D.C., to get the federal government to recycle their fluorescent bulbs three or four years ago and got the cold shoulder. They didn't want to spend the money.”

        A Minnesota native who spends about 25 percent of his time in Cincinnati, Mr. Drumm said he got interested in lamp recycling several years ago. He was talking to a friend in the recycling business who indicated it was becoming a bigger and bigger issue.

        “Minnesota and California were in the recycling vanguard,” he said.

        But because of Cincinnati's central location and because he was already operating a tank-cleaning business in Winton Place, he decided to set up shop here.

        The burned-out fluorescent bulbs shipped to USA Lamp's plant are loaded on to a conveyor and crushed in a machined designed specifically to crush light bulbs. The debris is fed through a series of screens that sifts out the metal end caps and glass, which are also recycled. The mercury-laden phosphor powder in the bulbs falls into a bag system under the machines.

        The powder is sent to Bethlehem Apparatus Co. in Hellertown, Pa., which distills the saleable mercury back to liquid form.

        USA Lamp also recycles the used to ship the lamps to its center.

       



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