Sunday, June 23, 2013

Discard used energy-saving bulbs and tubes with care

Global lighting giant Philips predicts that by 2015, 50% of the global lighting market will be LED, and if that comes true, then the disposal of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) could be less as a problem on a macro scale.

However, the high price barrier for LEDs means that most households will continue to use CFLs as they wait for the former to be more affordable, and this means that proper CFL disposal will remain a challenge in the short to medium term.

(Left) A 11W CFL bulb contains 2mg of mercury, and will go up according to the bulb size. 
(Right) The collection box at Ikea store in Petaling Jaya. 

Saving energy through the use of efficient lighting has been touted as a green act, but this is an incomplete picture as no focus has been given on end-of-life handling. Using CFLs is green only if the mercury inside is properly locked, if not recovered for reuse.

Problem with indiscriminate disposal

Added in vapour form, mercury is an essential part of the CFL technology, as it allows the bulbs to be an efficient light source. The downside of CFLs is that each bulb contains a small amount of mercury, typically around 4mg, that remain sealed within the glass tubing.

To compare, the old mercury-based thermometers can contain up to 500mg of mercury, which is more than what is found in 100 CFLs.

If mercury is swallowed, less than 1/1000 is absorbed by the body and most of it is eliminated, mainly through the urine and faeces. But the problem with mercury is that it is a persistent, bio-accumulative toxin. When the cumulative amount is huge, such as through the widespread use of fluorescent lamps, then there might be a real possibility of mercury contaminating landfills.

Discard with care

In some developed countries, like the United States, there are systematic efforts to salvage usable parts and materials from used CFL bulbs. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the recycling of CFLs and other fluorescent bulbs allows the reuse of the glass, metals and other materials that make up the bulbs.

It says virtually all components of a fluorescent bulb can be recycled. It is possible to separate the glass, phosphor powder and metal bits from crushed lights for reuse, but in Malaysia, this entire load is buried in a secured landfill.

For that to happen anywhere, there needs to be a proper disposal and collection system, whether mandated or otherwise. Malaysian regulations do not state that households need to properly dispose their CFLs. It is the same for Singapore, which allows households to throw away used bulbs along with their household waste.

IKEA the only one making an effort so far?

According to recent The Star report, Ikea in Malaysia is the only volunteer in doing its part to help reduce the problem of mercury emissions. It has placed a bulb collection box at its Mutiara Damansara store in Petaling Jaya, Selangor since 2010. No purchase is necessary for people to use the facility.

At its store, Ikea crushes the bulbs (along with fluorescent tubes) by using a specialised machine called the Bulb Eater, manufactured by US-based Air Cycle which cost the store RM20,000, before sending the waste to a secured landfill managed by Kualiti Alam at Bukit Nanas, Negri Sembilan. Thus far, the store has collected 11 drums of crushed lights weighing about three tonnes.

Kualiti Alam bills Ikea up to RM3,750 (not including transportation) for each tonne of crushed bulbs it receives.

Image credit: The Star. Full article can be found at The Star here.

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TheGreenMechanics: Participation by other private entities and NGOs is crucial. The government must play a role in easing the way for anyone wanting to promote the proper disposal of used bulbs/tubes. Ikea is definitely alone here.

Set up one center for each state for a start, then we can move on from there.

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