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



  1. peter said,

    July 12, 2012 at 3:53 pm

    Yes in Germany, Canada and US similar fears often expressed about
    lack of recycling
    Only likely functioning way is to give people money back for returning the CFLs someplace, in the shops or elsewhere
    So the CFLs would carry a 50 cent or equivalent extra cost when people buy them
    I think that idea was actually up in the Swedish Parliament some years ago, given the similar system for bottles, but idea seems to have been dropped.. probably not to scare people about the “ban” on other light bulbs!
    [Re “glass wool” question, = fibreglass (US fiberglass)… glass wool sounds more descriptive though!]

    • peter said,

      July 12, 2012 at 3:58 pm

      The “50 cent” (say) admittedly does not sound much for the return effort…
      but is a bit like people like to use coupons even for tiny discounts
      in shops….. and no doubt local kids or others would organize collections among local households, to make some pocket money

  2. halogenica said,

    July 12, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    Thanks for comments and links! Quoting from your site:

    “It was found that the mercury release rate varies proportionally with temperature, which was expected because of the greater volatility of mercury at higher temperatures.

    “One-third of the mercury release occurs during the first 8 hours after breakage. Between 17% and 40% of the mercury in broken low-mercury fluorescent bulbs is released to the air during the two-week period immediately following breakage, with higher temperatures contributing to higher release rates.”

    So if you’re going shopping or visiting a friend, you never know if someone dropped a CFL recently and didn’t know how to clean it up properly.

    A extra refundable recycling fee would be very helpful, I’m sure. It has been successful with aluminium cans and PVC bottles. I think CFLs already include a sort of recycling fee but that goes to recyclers and does not include the consumer.


    [Yes, fibreglass, right! Oddly enough, that’s what we call the hardened variety used in boats, not the fluffy stuff.]

  3. halogenica said,

    July 12, 2012 at 5:55 pm

    Found the article about the Swedish politician suggesting a refundable recycling fee:


    •  lighthouse said,

      July 18, 2012 at 5:19 pm

      Riksdagsledamot Sofia Arkelsten 0703-584443
      “Vad sägs om 20 kronor tillbaka för din gamla lampa?”
      (“How about getting 20kr for your old bulb?”)
      Thus speaks a true politician 🙂

  4. halogenica said,

    July 12, 2012 at 6:07 pm

    So, to sum it up: even though there was a bit of a stir about this in the press last year, it appears to still be a problem unsolved, with El-Kretsen pretending things are under control while the glass recyclers are still having to deal with the issue in their daily work and the truckers probably not even aware of being at risk.

    I wonder if the minister who wanted some answers from EU have gotten a reply by now?

  5. August 24, 2012 at 9:50 pm

    CFL recycling doesn’t even work in Switzerland (- who foolishly followed the EU’s ban.) Look closely, and guess how the stuff gets handled in poorer and/or less environmentally conscious countries:


    • halogenica said,

      August 24, 2012 at 11:19 pm

      I think I can guess… 😦

      Thanks for the link!

    • bulbfairy said,

      August 25, 2012 at 10:32 am

      direct link to download the entire Rundschau broadcast (225mb) is

      [video src="http://podcastsource.sf.tv/nps/235576334/2732.12/Rundschau%20vom%2015.08.2012/podcast/rundschau/2012/08/rundschau_20120815_223728_vpodcast_h264_16zu9_mq1.m4v" /]

      the cfl segment starts at 18m10s.

  6. December 21, 2012 at 1:22 am

    […] they must be taken to special recycling facilities, often reachable only by car, instead often contaminating other recycling materials); and risk of mercury contamination of one’s home if accidentally […]

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