University of Calgary

Toxic terminator

Meet the eater

Light bulb crusher keeps mercury out of landfills

By Laurie Drukier

It looks like a robot from a science fiction movie but it only exterminates fluorescent light bulbs.

The new “bulb eater” at the University of Calgary, an alien-looking lamp crushing system, will keep mercury out of landfills and reduce the overall volume of waste.

The machine is one of only a few in Calgary and will crush more than 180,000 fluorescent bulbs over the next three years as the university retrofits its light fixtures with more energy-efficient lamps.

Working with partner Direct Energy, the university has committed to reducing energy consumption on campus by $30 million over the course of the seven-year partnership.
Refitting light fixtures is only one initiative to achieve that goal, but it brought up its own question: What to do with all the old bulbs?

“We’re in the business of sustainable energy solutions,” says Peter Dixon, vice-president of Direct Energy Business Services. “The bulb eater is a natural fit. We’re reducing waste and keeping toxins out of landfills, not just for this project, but for the foreseeable future.”
The bulb eater will crush spent fluorescent tubes, filter out the mercury and store the glass shards for disposal. The captured mercury will be sent for disposal to a designated hazardous waste facility.

Until recently, old fluorescent tubes were going into the garbage and ending up in landfills. Mercury liquid and vapour could enter the ecosystem from broken bulbs, and eventually find its way into our water or food. With .15mg of mercury in each fluorescent tube, that’s a lot of toxic waste.

“We’re finding more and more ways to reduce our negative impact on the environment,” says Steve Dantzer, associate vice-president of Campus Infrastructure. “This equipment is an investment that has immediate payoff, not only financially, but also environmentally.”

The U of C and Direct Energy are retrofitting approximately 90,000 fluorescent light fixtures containing more than 180,000 fluorescent tubes around campus as part of Project Evolve. The retrofit will save more than 16,000,000 kilowatt hours of electricity and 3,800 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions per year, the equivalent of removing 780 cars from the road or planting 853,000 trees over 1,960 acres.

After the retrofit is complete, about 10,000 tubes per year will be crushed in the new machine.