Shining a light on lamp and tube recycling

Changes in legislation are driving building operators to recycle lamps and tubes used in lighting, rather than sending them to landfill. Bryan Neill, Managing Director of Mercury Recycling, a specialist end-of-life recycler, explains.

Over the last few years there has been increasing pressure for the light sources commonly used in commercial, industrial and street lighting to be recycled. Thanks to recent and forthcoming changes in legislation, recycling is now the only viable option for the majority of building operators in the commercial, industrial and public sectors.

The reason for this is that the gas discharge lamps used in most of these applications contain small amounts of mercury as well as a number of other potentially hazardous materials. And, while each lamp only contains a small amount of mercury, vast numbers of these lamps are used and disposed of in the UK every year – resulting in a significant environmental threat. Discharge lamps include fluorescent tubes and compact fluorescent lamps, as well as sodium, metal halide and mercury vapour light sources.

Impact of legislation

Three important pieces of legislation have had, and will have, a big impact on lamp disposal by reducing the availability of hazardous landfill sites, making disposal more expensive and waste producers more accountable for their waste streams.

In July 2004 the Government introduced the Landfill Directive, which reduced the number of hazardous landfill sites from 250 to 10, and only a couple of these are licensed to deal with mercury-containing waste. For lamps and tubes, in particular, this resulted in the cost of landfill tripling.

On 16 July 2005 came the introduction of the Hazardous Waste Regulations in England and Wales. The regulations are based on the European Hazardous Waste Catalogue.

Under the new regulations, lamps and tubes are now classified as hazardous waste and attract a hazardous waste consignment fee when any transfer of waste lamps is made. In addition, any site producing more than 200kg of any type of hazardous waste per annum will have to register as a hazardous waste producer and obtain a site registration code. As a guide to what this actually means, around 500 fluorescent tubes constitute about 200kg, but it is important to remember this threshold covers all types of hazardous waste, not just lamps.

The WEEE Directive (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) will also be introduced during the early part of 2006. When this Directive comes into force, recycling of lamps and tubes will become mandatory.

For most building operators the most cost-effective route for complying with the new legislation will be to team up with a specialist contractor that is licensed to deal with hazardous waste such as lamps. In relation to this, there is another consideration for building operators.

Special treatment

Gas discharge light sources are amongst the most challenging forms of hazardous waste to deal with because they use so many different materials that have to be separated. Consequently, there are only a few specialist companies in the UK with the facilities and expertise to ensure that 100% of the lamp components are dealt with in compliance

with the requirements of the legislation. Mercury Recycling employs state-of-the-art machinery and techniques to meet this requirement.

For example, the vacuum within the lamps means they implode when crushed, so the crushing procedure has to be contained within specially constructed machines. Highly flammable hydrogen gas is also released when the sodium from sodium lamps is exposed to water, so special precautions have to be taken with this both when processing and storing these lamps.

In addition, the glass in many lamps is coated with a mixture of phosphors and this has to be stripped off before the glass can be re-used. These phosphors also contain mercury, which is distilled from the phosphor mix at very high temperatures (around 8000C) to reclaim pure liquid mercury. In the case of sodium lamps, the sodium is also reclaimed. Ferrous and non-ferrous metals are also separated from other components and sent

for re-use.

In preparation for these changes, the lighting industry has been working closely with the waste industry to ensure procedures are in place. To that end, a not-for-profit organisation called Sustainalite was established to, amongst other things, create an approved protocol for lamp recycling methods. Mercury Recycling is a founder member of Sustainalite.

Figures provided by Sustainalite also show that around 12.5 million lamps were recycled in 2004. However, during the same period, 100 million lamps were distributed in the

UK, so there is still a huge gap. Thanks to the changes in legislation, that gap will be closed significantly in the coming years.

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