Recycling fluorescent lamps in Australia: Trends, Risks and Challenges
There are several demographic factors which constrain Australia's ability to continually provide superior resource recovery and waste management solutions. These factors are continued population growth, a high proportion of the population living in rural and remote locations, the increasingly popular trend of living in single unit housing and the increasing wealth of citizens which translates into the rising demand for consumables. One of those goods that is in increasing demand is energy efficient lighting solutions, namely compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) for homes and fluorescent tubes for office type environments. While fluorescent lamps do save energy, they unfortunately contain a small amount of mercury. This mercury presents a danger to the environment if it isn't recovered responsibly.
FluoroCycle is an Australian voluntary initiative with the aim of increasing the proper waste disposal of lamps that contain mercury. The scheme is jointly provided by the Lighting Council of Australia and the Australian Government. Organizations, businesses and local governments can become signatories with FluoroCycle to show their commitment to reducing mercury that enters the environment. Voluntary efforts that these organizations can take to reduce their mercury waste are ensuring that fluorescent or mercury-containing lamps are properly recycled instead of landing in commercial waste bins.
It is estimated that approximately 95% of fluorescent lamps in Australia wind up in a landfill every year. As the largest consumer product category which contains mercury, their proper waste disposal will enable Australia to reduce its net annual mercury emissions. According to the Government of Australia's 2010 National Waste Report, the amount of hazardous waste generated doubled between 2002 and 2006, reaching 1.19 million tonnes annually. Of that figure, Australia exports approximately 30,000 tonnes of hazardous waste every year.
Despite the fact that fluorescent lamps contain mercury, their usage is actually contributing to the reduction of mercury emissions. Incandescent bulbs (which do not contain mercury) require much more energy to operate than fluorescent bulbs and last approximately only a tenth of the lifespan of a CFL, on average. In a country such as Australia, which derives 39.7% of its energy from coal, using electricity will require the burning of coal, which produces mercury emissions. Using fluorescent lamps reduces the amount of direct mercury emissions into the atmosphere.
Waste collection of fluorescent lamps for recycling is crucial in order to reduce the amount of mercury that ends up in a landfill, as well as the environment. Mercury within a landfill poses a serious risk of leaching into waterways, especially in landfills that are not properly contained. The small amount of mercury within a single thermometer is capable of contaminating the equivalent of five Olympic-sized swimming pools of water to toxic levels. Knowing this, it is of exceptional importance that hazardous waste be collected and treated separately from general waste. The problem of toxic chemical leaching is more prevalent in developing countries where landfill design and construction requirements aren't as stringent. Exporting hazardous waste likely poses a larger environment threat than treating it locally.
Some consumers worry about the possible health hazards of using or breaking a fluorescent lamp within a home. It should be known that the amount of mercury vapour inside a fluorescent lamp is so small that doesn't pose a serious risk of mercury poisoning. Australia's standards for fluorescent lamps dictate that a compact fluorescent lamp may contain no more than 5mg of mercury, while a fluorescent tube may not contain more than 15mg of mercury. While the risk of harming one's health with the mercury from a CFL is extremely low, there are other sources of mercury that pose a health hazard to humans.
Mercury poisoning is more commonly obtained by ingesting foods, typically fish, which contain mercury. This process is known as bio-accumulation. When the naturally-occurring mercury in coal is burned, it is released into the atmosphere as methyl mercury. It then ends up in waterways where it is absorbed by plants species and small organisms which are then consumed by fish. Since mercury cannot be processed by fish or human bodies, it typically ends up accumulating in our cells at increasingly concentrated levels. In extreme cases, mercury poisoning can lead to Minamata disease. This is why it is important for mercury to not find its way into the environment; whether by burning coal, or leaching into waterways from improperly built landfills.
When fluorescent lamps are recycled in Australia, the crush and separate technique is used. The mercury is collected, distilled and reused in the manufacturing of dental amalgams. The glass is recycled and transformed into glass wool to be used as residential insulation. The aluminium from the fluorescent tube ends is recycled and reused for other metal products. Lastly, the phosphor powder is used to manufacture fertilizer for the agriculture industry. Any leftover waste is sent to a landfill. This process of using the waste from one industry and converting it into a resource for another industry is called industrial ecology.
One of the challenges with recycling fluorescent lamps is that they are classified as hazardous waste and need to be treated specially. These lamps cannot be collected conveniently in general waste bins, but should be brought to drop off locations for specialized recycling centres capable of treating hazardous waste. This adds three extra steps for citizens: they must separate their hazardous waste from other rubbish, store it until there is a sufficient amount to warrant a trip to a recycling centre or drop off location and then to finally make the special trip. It's no wonder that the vast majority of fluorescent lamps in Australia and around the world end up in a landfill. Making the disposal of hazardous waste more convenient for both the commercial and residential sectors is key to increasing the recycling rate of fluorescent lamps.