It’s the thing that makes fluorescent lights work, including compact fluorescents (CFLs). Unfortunately for us, it’s also a health hazard.
Almost 98 per cent of all fluorescent lights are crushed into landfill. When you consider that Australians dump between 57 and 71 million lights a year, that’s a lot of mercury. In fact, that’s over 1,100 kg of mercury. It’s safe to say that fluorescent lights are the most significant source of mercury contamination of all the waste we produce.
When fluorescent lights are broken, the mercury they contain can vapourise. Inhaling even a small amount of this vapour can impact us in many ways – from harming our kidneys, to causing respiratory failure or even death (at high doses).
It’s called methylmercury and it is a highly toxic agent. In nature, methylmercury forms in aquatic systems when anaerobic organisms (organisms that don’t need oxygen) feed on it. Unfortunately, landfills often imitate the same conditions. The result can be concentrations of methylmercury in our environment up to 100 times the normal levels (as was the case with a landfill in Florida). That’s pretty toxic.
Methylmercury is a bioaccumulant, which basically means it builds up in our food chain, and it’s most commonly ingested by eating fish. Methylmercury is so dangerous, it can even impede the development of a child’s nervous system.
Using fluorescent lights, to reduce the amount of energy we use, can help us significantly decrease the amount of methylmercury in the environment. That’s because methylmercury is also created when coal is combusted to generate electricity.
By recycling fluorescent lights however, we can reduce the amount of mercury in our environment even further. As the more inefficient incandescent lightbulbs are phased out and the use of fluorescent lights increases, we’ll have to get smarter about the way we use them.
Recycling all our fluorescent lightbulbs is a good start. It’s so important that a recent report by the Federal Senate Standing Committee on the Environment, Communications and the Arts called for swift action on the issue.
Melbourne is also home to Australia’s leading recycler of mercury from fluorescent lights – CMA EcoCycle. Their Campbellfield plant is a world leader and is capable of processing large amounts of discarded fluorescent tubes and globes. Without government support, however, the company must compete with other organisations that collect fluorescent lights and send them to landfill.
Recycling our 71 million fluorescent lightbulbs would not only stop mercury from bleeding into our environment, it would also help us recover 13,000 tonnes of glass, 500 tonnes of aluminium, 400 tonnes of other metals and 300 tonnes of phosphor powder.
That’s a lot of stuff we get to use on other things.
Companies like CMA EcoCycle have been calling on the federal government to introduce regulation that would support recycling for fluorescent lightbulbs and ban them from being dumped in landfill.
Environment Victoria supports this and is also calling for the government to introduce minimum standards for mercury-containing lights sold in Australia.
Toxic bulbs, new compact fluorescent light bulbs promising low running costs and a longer life may have economists sold but we’re far more concerned. Watch here
Compact fluorescent lamps, Wikipedia entry. Learn more