Swedish Mercury

CFL recycling problem update

I wanted to know more about the previously reported recycling problems where people throw CFLs in glass recycling containers in Sweden (same as reported in Denmark a few years ago).

So I called Svensk Glasåtervinning and asked. They said this is still a big problem for them. They had found elevated mercury values in several locations of their recycling facility. I asked about the health of their workers and they said they had been tested for Hg but were OK. The person I spoke with pointed out however, that by the time the glass arrives at the factory, much will already have evaporated and possibly affected the trucking entrepreneurs who collect the containers. I suspect also those using the local recycling facility – some of which are indoors (in residential buildings).

I asked if they had tested the containers (in Sweden called “glass-igloos” due to their round shape). He said that doing such a test had not occurred to them, but that it was a good idea to test at least a few of the thousands of igloos used around Sweden. (I’m thinking that if containers are contaminated by Hg that they may keep contaminating ever new batches of glass, at least in the cold season when it does not evaporate?) Some of that glass is turned into new food grade glass, some into what we call “glass wool” (not sure of the English word) for house insulation.

He said that they do not get reimbursed for all the extra risk, cost and trouble that Hg contamination causes to their glass recycling, and that they were rather frustrated with those who have the producer responsibility not having done enough to inform the general public and supply enough easily accessible recycling opportunities for CFLs.

When it comes to outdoor recycling stations, they are prohibited from doing so by the fact that Hg is classed as hazardous waste, and we can’t have hazardous waste containers sitting unattended on the sidewalk. And so many of those who are not fortunate enough to have a separate bulb recycling bin in their residential building, or a ‘red box’ collected by the local municipality for home owners, throw their CFLs in the glass container instead as many don’t have time, knowledge, opportunity or transportation to take them to an out-of-the-way recycling plant or to one of the often equally out-of-the-way retail chains who collect bulbs for proper recycling (after which the Hg is stored indefinitely).

So I called El-Kretsen, the organisation that has been appointed in Sweden to handle the so-called producer responsibility (according to the WEEE directive). The representative said they are working hard to remedy the situation (and have a PR webpage bragging about this). I suggested they mail all residential building owners in Sweden with information on the importance of adding (and paying a little extra for) a hazardous waste bin in their recycling rooms, information on how to handle mercury contamination, and signs to put up to inform residents. He seemed to think this right-to-the-source approach was way too much work and referred to their their own information- and annual electronic waste collection campaign.

CFL breakage information

After hearing from an aquaintance spotting someone drop a CFL in a supermarket, I thought I’d find out how the leading food chains in Sweden handle such accidents.

Ica’s website has a CFL info page (complete with the usual propaganda lies) that includes info on both recycling and what to do in case of accidents. I called their HQ to ask if it happens that lamps break in their stores and she said “Yes”. I asked if their staff was informed on what to do and she said they were actually planning an information campaign in a few weeks.

Coop’s website only refers to a recycling site for what to do with CFLs after they burn out, nothing about how to handle mercury spills. I called and asked. They said information has been sent out to stores, but when I called one of the biggest Coop supermarkets in Stockholm, the manager could not recall having seen any such information. He said there were no breakages that he was aware of. I asked what they would do if there were and he said “Just sweep up the pieces and throw in the garbage, I guess”-  and also confessed to just tossing burned-out CFLs in the bin at home. I informed him of the mercury content and that mercury is hazardous waste. This jolted a memory that perhaps he’d heard something to that effect… I asked if he could make sure to inform his staff from now on, but he said such an incentive needs to come from HQ. So I tipped HQ off that their biggest competitor is having a campaign soon.

When you think about it, isn’t it rather stunning and alarming that a fairly easily breakable product containing mercury is sold together with food

CFL Analysis – Recycling

Due to the high risk of adding to mercury pollution if thrown away with housholed garbage and ending up in landfills, everyone naturally agrees that CFLs should be safely recycled.

However, the EU Commissions own consultants found that:

“Recycling rate of mercury containing lamps for commercial and domestic sectors (including linear fluorescent and HID lamps which make up the vast majority in commercial sector):

* Bulgaria 2008: 0% despite recycling legislation
* Denmark 2007: total >50%, domestic low (source: http://www.lwf.nu/)
* France 2007: total 36%, domestic ? (source: Recylum.com)
* Germany 2006: total 36%, commercial 90%, domestic 10% incl all lamps (source: LightCycle)
* Poland 2007: total 10% (“lighting equipment”, not just lamps), domestic ?
* Sweden 2007: total 75%, commercial 90%, domestic 60% (source: STEM)

“The general impression from contact with manufacturers and EU-27 country representatives is that the recycling system for collection of mercury from lamps is in most countries not implemented properly, especially for the residential sector. A large part of the consumers don’t even know that a CFLi contains mercury and that they should give back the disposed CFLi for recycling.[1] [emphasis added]

* Baltic States, Belgium, Chech Republic, Hungary, Portugal, Romania have initiated recycling programmes but statistics were not yet available. A recycling fee is often included in the purchase price. [1]

* According to European Lamp Companies Federation, only Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Norway and Switserland currently “have the infrastructure to recycle at least 50% of their mercury containing lamps”, with Austria and Belgium starting schemes. [2]

* In Sweden September 2009 , 20% of CFLs do not get recycled, according to a rough – and probably optimistic – estimate by lighting industry representative Magnus Franzell, despite being one of the leading countries in recycling awareness and routines.

“‘The problem is that every CFL contains up to 5 milligrams of mercury, one of the most dangerous envionmental toxins. And now CFL sales are increasing drastically. We estimate that it will double or triple within a few years now that the incandescent bulb is banned’, says Magnus Frantzell. “This would mean that about 10 to 15 million CFLs per year will be sold. If recycling remains on the same level as totay, this means that up to 10-15 kilograms will not be recycled.'” [3]

* In Denmark, January 2009, nearly 50% of CFLs still did not get recycled and two thirds of end users did not know you need to recycle CFLs! Therefore many throw them away with household garbage or in the recycling containers for glass! [4]

* In the U.S., recycling is not going well either. [5]

* In December 2008, the EU Commision expressed the following concerns:

“EU legislation to restrict the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment and to promote the collection and recycling of such equipment has been in force since August 2004. More than four years later only about a third of electrical and electronic waste is reported to be treated in line with these laws and the other two thirds is going to landfilland potentially to sub-standard treatment sites in or outside the European Union. Apart from losing out on valuable secondary raw materials, this is especially worrisome since inadequately treated products pose major environmental and health risks. The illegal trade to non-EU countries also continues to be widespread. Moreover many electrical and electronic products not complying with the substance restrictions have been found in the EU.” [emphasis added] [6]

The EU WEEE directive regarding Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment mandates retailers to take back old electrical equipment when a new similar item is bought. This is of course excellent, providing one really wants to buy a new similar product. You can’t take back your old stereo and buy a coffee maker instead, or a CFL and buy a halogen or LED lamp. But it’s of course better than nothing and some larger chains like IKEA have volunteered to take back CFLs without strings attached.

Deposit-refund scheme would probably be an even more effective way of raising recycling rates. [7] This needs to be done now! Nothing stops individual countries from implementing such schemes. In Sweden some politicians have already suggested it. [8]

Safe disposal

And even if more users can be persuaded to leave burned-out CFLs for recycling and everything possible is done to facilitate this, CFLs have to be handled with utmost care so they don’t break. You can’t just chuck them into a container like you can with glass, paper, plastic and metals. So, I decided to make some random calls to see how CFLs are handled at various stages of the recycling cycle. (I’ll be updating this list as I make more calls, so check it again if you want to know.)

* IKEA is one of the companies that accept burned-out CFLs from customers without strings attached. I asked if this is done by collecting them safely in small boxes or if people just throw them in a recycling container where they can break. They said the latter may occur at some places. I informed them that mercury vapourises at +20C and can be inhaled by staff and customers alike. This information was new to them! Alarmed, they promised to look into this immediately and change recycling routines a s a p. In Sweden.

* IKEA Denmark seems to be well aware of the mercury risk and claim to recycle theirs carefully in small boxes where bulbs don’t break.

* IKEA U.K. couldn’t say how recycling was done but promised to forward the information about the necessity of not breaking them to other stores.

* A Home Depot store in Seattle, U.S.A, seemed at least to know about the risk of mercury vaporising at room temperature and assured me returned CFLs were being handled properly, but couldn’t say exactly how.

* A randomly picked U.S. Wal-Mart store had no clue what I was talking about and referred to the fluffy sustainability page on their website.

* Ragn-Sells, one of the major recycling facilities in Sweden they said they handle CFLs with care so they don’t break before getting recycled. That’s reassuring, at least. Well, unless accidents happen in the recycling process…

“Sweden Recycling in Hovmantorp have had problems with one of their machines that recycles lamps with mercury. Employees have inhaled mercury and must until further notice use protective masks. Two empolyees at Sweden Recycling have shown elevated levels of mercury in urine- and blood samples.” [9]

1. Domestic Lighting, Part 1, Chapter 3
2. European Lamp Companies Federation
3. Miljoner lampor med kvicksilver försvinner
4. Hver anden sparepære går op i røg
6. Light-bulb ban craze exceeds disposal plans
6. Environment: Commission proposes revised laws on recycling and use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment
7. New Electric Politics: Environment
8. Moderat föreslår pant på lågenergilampor
9. Sweden Recycling åtgärdar kvicksilverläcka

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