Campaign Urges Proper Disposal of Batteries, Bulbs

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 16, 2006

It turns out that such things as clouds of car exhaust and runoff from dirty storm water aren't the only dangers to the suburban environment. Think a lot closer to home -- to your pocket, your desk or the light above it.

Fluorescent light bulbs and rechargeable batteries used in cordless telephones, computers, fax machines and other digital-age equipment contain toxic chemicals that are dangerous if they get into groundwater, air or soil and are absorbed even in small quantities, according to environmental officials.

These products contain substances such as mercury, lead and PCBs and cannot be thrown out in the trash. A single broken fluorescent light bulb (whose hazardous culprit is mercury) can contaminate as much as 7,000 gallons of water. Some estimates say 90 percent of fluorescent lighting is disposed of improperly as regular trash.

So bulbs and rechargeable batteries need to be recycled or treated as hazardous waste. To get the word out, the Northern Virginia Regional Commission is conducting an educational campaign aimed at businesses. The commission is made up of 14 local governments: Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties and 10 cities and towns.

It's one element of a broader effort by the commission to push local governments to focus collectively on environmental issues, whether it's the cleanup of Four Mile Run or the Chesapeake Bay.

The commission is so serious about the campaign that a dozen members, mostly local government officials, held a news conference last week to kick it off, each holding up an offending device such as a cellphone for the cameras.

"We're seeing more and more of these materials come into the waste stream," said Debbie Spiliotopoulos, the commission's senior environmental planner. "It's a huge issue. These are hazards people might not know about. Most businesses aren't thinking about mercury."

The campaign is aimed particularly at small and medium-size companies that abound in fluorescent lights and electronic systems but might not be aware of federal and state laws requiring proper disposal of bulbs and batteries.

Each government represented on the commission is tasked with spreading the word to business leaders through localized efforts timed to coincide with Earth Day, April 22. For example, a construction company that uses dozens of drills run by batteries would be a target of the campaign.

"It's an easy way to make a difference environmentally," Spiliotopoulos said. The campaign is costing the commission about $10,000.

The commission has devoted a Web site to the effort, The commission has devoted a Web site to the effort, . The site suggests "recovery" companies that can be hired for disposal. Businesses that properly manage their hazardous waste are eligible for reductions in some environmental regulatory requirements, commission officials said.

"We're trying to be as transparent as possible," said commission Chairman Barbara A. Favola, who is also a member of the Arlington County Board.

Tony Howard, spokesman for the Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce, the region's largest business group, said businesses want to do the right thing. The challenge is educating them.

"We know businesses in this region are very concerned about the environment," Howard said. "Cleaning staff and property managers need to be aware of the issues." He suggested that waste haulers can play a part, too, in setting up separate systems for disposal and pickup of bulbs and electronic equipment.

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