Mercury rising

By Ian Neubauer

A working group established by the Federal Government to explore the viability of a compulsory recycling scheme for fluorescent lights is preparing to deliver its findings to the Department of Environment and Water Resources.
Fluorescent lighting contains mercury – the most toxic non-radioactive pollutant on the Environmental Protection Agency’s list of hazardous substances.

“This group is being asked to provide factual information for inclusion in a draft report which examines the environmental impacts of mercury from lamps,” said Australian Greenhouse Office spokesperson Catherine Corver.
“On finalisation, the report will be used by the Environment Protection and Heritage Council to develop advise on whether [fluorescent lighting] should be considered a national waste priority.”

Environmental lobby groups have applauded the initiative but pointed out that Australia lags behind international developments in the field. The recycling of mercury-containing lighting is mandatory in the EU, Taiwan and New Zealand, while most US states require the separate collection of fluorescent lamps.

“The report is slightly overdue. But I think the government has realised this is an issue that effects every household and they are now going about the correct course of action,” said Australian Council of Recycling CEO Anne Prince.
“Groups have brought it to their attention and for once they are doing it the right way.”

The issue is gaining momentum as Australia approaches a 2010 deadline that will see a ban on the sale of incandescent globes. In their place, consumers will be encouraged to purchase compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs), which use about 75 per cent less energy and last more than 10 times longer than ordinary light bulbs.

But a recent article in Choice magazine has brought light to the fact that mercury in CFLs could create a new environmental hazard when discarded in landfill.

Similar views were raised in a 2006 report compiled by Advanced Recycling Australasia (ARA) – the only EPA-licensed mercury recycling company in the country.

 “Unbroken, these products are totally safe to handle and to use,” the report said.
“But when dumped at landfill, the glass is broken and the mercury contained in these lighting products is released into the soil. The mercury from one fluorescent tube can pollute 30,000 litres of water.”

The report cites a 2005 study published in the National Institutes of Health Journal that found the US loses more than $10 billion annually due to the impact of mercury on the brain development of unborn fetuses.

“Before they take their first breath, as many as 600,000 babies may suffer permanent brain damage from their mothers’ exposure to mercury pollution,” the study reported.
“The damage has personal consequences but now we see that it also has enormous implications for the national economy.”

Though it identified coal-fired power plants as the largest industrial emitters of mercury in the US, the study nonetheless highlights the eminent danger Australia could face when the ban on regular light bulbs comes into play less than three years from now.

”There is a great flurry of activity of people replacing bulbs and tubes and having no place to dispose of them correctly,” Ms Prince said.
“I don’t think people are aware of the dangers.”

ARA suggests a two-pronged approach to solving the problem: the national distribution by councils of purpose-made storage boxes, and a law banning the dumping of fluorescent lighting in landfill.

“Unfortunately, without the landfill ban, there is no hope of changing the status quo. Because compared to the cost of recycling, it will always be cheaper to dump these products in landfill,” the company said in its 2006 report.

ARA operates a mercury recycling plant in Victoria that is capable of handling all fluorescent lighting waste generated in Australia.

The company also supplies specially manufactured boxes for the collection of fluorescent lighting and staffs dedicated collection depots in every state and territory in Australia. ARA claims the cost of collecting and recycling fluorescent lighting ranges from 1.5 to 1.7 per cent of the products’ retail value, but that government inactivity has fostered a culture in which less than two per cent of fluorescent lighting is properly recycled.

“Currently there are about 70 million fluorescent light bulbs contributing 2 tonnes of mercury into landfill every year,” said ARA spokesperson, Peter Bitto.
“When you consider that one gram of mercury can contaminate 1 billion litres of water, it’s really environmental vandalism what’s happening in this country.
“There’s been a lot of talk but no legislation. This has been dragging on for 15 years.”

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