Beware of the Green Wire

Every contractor knows about the green grounding wire. But there is a distinct possibility that too many contractors aren’t aware there is another kind of green wire intertwined in the supply chain leading down from manufacturer, through distributor, to contractor. It has to do with a highly charged legislative and political issue that could be hazardous to the contractor’s business.

The issue is the disposal of electrical and electronic waste—lamps and thermostats come to mind. They have to be recycled and properly disposed of, but how is this to be done, who’s going to regulate the process and who’s going to pay for it?

Over the last five years, in state after state, recycling regulations have seen more stringent requirements and more aggressive enforcement. The trend is expected to continue.

Earlier this year, Washington became the first state to enact legislation targeting potential hazards of unsafe packaging and transportation of spent lamps and mercury-containing devices. Industry observers see this as the first in what is expected to be the next round of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) types of state and federal legislation.

The Washington law requires lamps and other mercury-containing devices to be repackaged and shipped in materials that will minimize the release of mercury into the environment. This applies whether lamps are shipped by the United States postal service or a common carrier or collected through curbside programs and mail-back businesses. 

Most recently, Tennessee and North Carolina added laws of their own. The Tennessee law is essentially a landfill and incinerator ban for disposal of commercial lamps and becomes effective Jan. 1, 2011. If a contractor is removing lamps from a site, whether replacement or retrofit, they can’t be thrown in the trash; the user or building owner must pay for the recycling.

The North Carolina law is a disposal ban applicable to lamps and thermostats from public agency locations, and it covers removal of product from demolition sites, since the products can’t be left in the building as it is demolished.

Regardless of the specifics of these WEEE directive-type laws, the fines connected with failure to comply can become a pricey line item in the electrical contractor’s cost of doing business.

For example, in some cases, administrative penalties shall not exceed $32,500 in the case of the first violation involving hazardous waste, which includes lamps and thermostats.

To further complicate the issue, the separate state laws differ widely in many cases, and the electrical contractor has to understand that there are stiff fines involved, particularly after the first offense.

Generally speaking, the small- to medium-sized contractors should seek advice on compliance from product sources—the distributor and manufacturer.

“You have to keep in mind that this is a big source of income for government,” said one electrical distributor who has been tracking this issue closely. “The focus has sharpened over the past few years with the increased emphasis on green systems and installations. And it’s hard to fight agencies that have thousands of auditing agents in the field and in-house counsel specializing in specific types of infraction. And the contractor is more of a stationary target than we distributors are.”

Green directives
It all started back in 2003, when the European Union (EU) promulgated two laws binding all of its member nations—the WEEE Directive and the Directive on Reduction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS). The two directives essentially governed the life cycle of electrical and electronic equipment and its components, delegating to industry what has been called a “cradle-to-grave product stewardship.”

But there were a lot of fuzzy areas in the EU legislation, including what products fall under its scope, how take-back costs for recycling of products should be charged, and who had exactly what responsibility.

Electrical distributors and contractors in Europe were caught unaware and continue to struggle to comply with the legislation, one of them remarking that distributors in Europe were facing the possibility of having their locations turned into revolving-door junkyards pending determination of the extent of their take-back responsibility in the recycling process.

Here in the United States, the mandatory recycling process began in 2006, with California and Massachusetts enacting “European look-alike” legislation. Today, 10 states have mandatory disposal regulations governing lamps, thermostats and other electrical/electronic products—the New England states, New York, California, Minnesota and Florida. In addition, some 30 states have various electrical/electronic waste regulations, most of them targeting consumer electronic products.
Patchwork of regulations

Most observers agree that the biggest problem with all this legislation is that it is inconsistent and represents a patchwork of regulations differing from state to state. And in some states, there are still no regulations at all, although continuing rollouts are expected. For contractors with multistate locations or job sites, compliance can be a complicated situation.

“It’s unfortunate that we put the cart before the horse,” said Stephen Greene at Howland Greene Consultants in Lowell, Mass. “There should have been federal legislation first that would have been the basis for uniform regulation of this issue throughout the country.”

Generally speaking, the responsibility of the distributor is to provide accurate recycling information to the contractor, the next partner in the supply chain, as part of an intelligence exchange process originating with the manufacturer and culminating with the end-user. The products most involved are mercury-containing lamps and thermostats.

“In most states, the recycling or disposal responsibility lies with ‘the generator’, or end-user of the lamp,” said Jennifer Dolin, manager of sustainability and environmental affairs at OSRAM Sylvania, Danvers, Mass. “But contractors should know what the requirements are in the states they operate in and make sure this information is passed on to their customers, and the proper determination is made as to whether the contractor or the building owner or project manager is responsible for the waste disposal.”

And there is no doubt that this process is costly, even when the contractor follows the letter of the law.

“This is a considerable added expense on any job for the contractor,” said Cory Szatkiewicz, national accounts manager at distributorship Turtle & Hughes Inc., Linden, N.J. “When you retrofit or upgrade fixtures from T-12 to T-8, the concern is the level of mercury in the T-12 lamps. So each time the contractor does a job, he has to dispose of the lamps properly and keep certificates for 10 years or whatever the law is in that particular state.

“[And] if the disposal charge is 25 cents a lamp, and there is a school job involving 3,000 fixtures, and each fixture has four lamps each, that means you’ve just added $3,000 to pay for the disposal of the lamps,” Szatkiewicz said

Dolin said manufacturers usually have a website and a dedicated toll-free number for contractors to call for more information. Most of these websites also provide links to other helpful websites, such as and, which break out requirements by state.
OSRAM Sylvania has its own online recycling program for customers, which connects them with Veolia Environnement, a French firm specializing in various environmental services.

“The distributor can go online and sign up to sell the company’s recycling kits to customers,” Dolin said. “Veolia can set up a tailored program for the distributor’s contractor customers, whether involving boxes or arranging for large-volume pickup.”

Aggressive advocates
The National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), headquartered in Rosslyn, Va., provides informational resources for the supply chain.

“A number of states have laws on the books impacting distributors who sell mercury-containing lamps to contractors,” said Mark Kohorst, the association’s senior manager of environment, health and safety.

Working with member manufacturers, NEMA publishes regular broadcast alerts to both distributors and contractors, warning them of their specific legal obligations. For example, NEMA recently sent a notice to distributors and contractors in Connecticut spelling out the notification requirements that must be passed on in writing when such lamps are sold or removed. Failure to comply can result in sizable fines, varying from state to state.

While to date, the requirements are limited to transmission of accurate information, Kohorst believes this could change.

“Public advocates for increased regulation of recycling have some very ambitious goals in mind,” he said. “If recycling rates don’t meet their targets, they might force members of the supply chain to do more. These advocates and the regulators they work with unfortunately tend to attack this problem with a blunt instrument, making demands of the supply chain that don’t make sense, practically or economically.

“For example, a bill currently being discussed in Congress that would ban disposal of mercury lamps in landfills is being opposed by many advocates on the grounds that it does not include strict enough punitive measures for manufacturers that would include having them pay for recycling throughout the country,” he said.

What makes this more than just a possibility is the fact that the latest figures compiled by the Association of Lighting and Mercury Retailers indicate that out of the 690 million lamps manufactured each year, only 155 million are recycled, a rate far below the advocates’ targets.

Heightening awareness
Central to the issue is the level of awareness on the part of contractors as to what they are required to do.

Environmental consultant Greene believes that this cognizance among contractors is not what it should be.

“I don’t think smaller businesses have quite gotten the message yet, largely because they’re preoccupied with the economy and will do the minimum they have to in order to comply. Smaller companies have to start paying attention and follow the trends in environmental regulation, so they can plan ahead and factor recycling into their cost structure. And they should be talking to their supply chain partners about it and not using the down economy as an excuse to procrastinate,” Greene said.

Jerry Rivera, director of safety at the National Electrical Contractors Association, Bethesda, Md., summed it up this way: “The general awareness is not out there at the present time, and for many, this issue is not considered a major concern.

“To date, the language of state has been largely geared to manufacturers. But if this hits the construction industry, in that we are generating so much waste in terms of lamps and ballasts, then we may be forced to comply with a cradle-to-grave regulatory system involving collection and documentation.
“Too many contractors are not familiar with the requirements of the regulations already in place because they mistakenly think this doesn’t impact them. But there is a definite risk of exposure within the contractor’s job scope, and they have to be aware that lamps and thermostats can’t be just thrown away anymore. Training definitely has to be ramped up to make the contractor aware of the downside risks of ignorance,” Rivera said.

QUINN reports on a broad range of business and industry issues for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at 203.323.9850 and

About the Author

John Paul Quinn

Freelance Writer
John Paul Quinn reports on a broad range of business and industry issues for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at 203.323.9850 and .

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