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'Just throw it out' - Council advice on toxic lightbulbs

Ian Randall

9th March, 2010

An Ecologist investigation reveals that three quarters of London Boroughs are advising their residents to simply throw compact fluorescent lightbulbs in their general waste, despite the hazard posed by their mercury content

Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) are truly an environmental blessing – they last up to 15 times longer than normal light bulbs, use a third of the energy of an equivalent filament lamp and are even more economical for users in the long term. The price of these benefits, however, lies in the tiny amount of mercury contained in each bulb, which calls for specialist recycling to avoid damage to the environment.

A CFL contains around 4 milligrams of mercury, which is barely enough to cover the head of a ballpoint pen but forms an essential working part of the lamp. When electrical current is passed through the mercury vapour in the bulb it becomes energised and gives off ultraviolet light. The phosphor coating on the tube then absorbs this, and fluoresces, giving off visible light. If disposed of in landfill, or incinerated, mercury may escape into the environment through leakage or broken lamps.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, it is estimated that 2 to 4 tons of mercury are released into the environment in America each year from fluorescent lamps alone: 'Once in the environment, mercury can be converted to an organic form that accumulates in living organisms and contaminates the food chain'.

How many lightbulbs does it take...

Mark Kohorst, Senior Manager for Environment, Health & Safety of the National Electrical Manufacturers Association in the US is cautious on pointing the finger of blame entirely at lightbulbs, but is unequivocal about what should happen to broken ones: 'It’s true that many millions of the bulbs continue to be sold worldwide, and that ultimately they will need to be disposed of or recycled,' he says. 'Whether the cumulative effects of improper disposal will be concerning, however, is unknown and would be site or time-specific.

How shouldn’t you recycle your light bulbs? Here’s what some of the councils said:

Barking & Dagenham
'You can put it in your domestic waste. Just wrap it in a bag, and put it in your domestic waste.'

Barnet
'As long as it’s wrapped up, you can put it straight into the dustbin.'

Bexley
'There isn’t at the moment a [recycling] scheme.'

Brent
'If it’s just one thing, no-one’s going to drive all the way down to the [recycling] centre.'

Bromley
'No, you can put it in the normal household waste; that’s fine!'

City of Westminster
'Just put them in the normal waste as far as I know.'

Croydon
'I don’t think we have any facilities for that.'

Ealing
'Wrap it up in newspaper so no-one cuts themselves on the glass and put it in your general refuse.'

Greenwich
'Put it into your black bin.'

Hackney
'Throw it away! Throw it away!'

Harrow
'[We] don’t actually have recycling facilities for light bulbs, so it can just go into your dustbin.'

Havering
'No, you can [throw it away], as long as you double wrap it, please.'

Hillingdon
'You can throw it in the trash.'

Hounslow
'No, it needs to go in the normal dustbin.'

Islington
'No, you can put it straight into the rubbish, that’s fine.'

Kensington
'I’d just stick it in the trash.'

Kingston
'No, small amounts like that can go into your normal trash.'

Lambeth
'It can just be put in the normal refuse.'

Lewisham
'No, you can throw it into the trash.'

Merton
'If it’s just the one, you can wrap it in newspaper and just put it in your black bag.'

Newham
'No, just put it in the trash, as long as you wrap it up.'

Redbridge
'You can put it in your regular waste. Just as long as you wrap it up so there are no jaggedy edges.'

Richmond
'Now, I just put mine straight in the trash; there is a recycling centre, but the energy you waste in getting there is greater than saved by recycling it... there's nothing to stop it going into the landfill.'

Waltham Forest
'If it’s just one light bulb, I’m sure you wouldn’t get punished for putting it in your bin.'

'Nevertheless, there is widespread agreement that lamp recycling should be promoted to ensure that the mercury in lamps is recovered and thus loses the potential for release to the environment.'

While the United States consumes more CFLs than Britain, with the UK ban on the manufacture of traditional, incandescent light bulbs coming into effect last September the number of CFLs in use here will be on the rise. So with this, the need for correct disposal of expired lamps has become even more important.

The advice we got

It should, then, be a relief to know that a network of specialised waste facilities has been set up around the country to safely collect and recycle CFLs – or, at least, it is if you know about it. The Ecologist examined the provisions for light bulb recycling in London, and discovered that while facilities may be readily available, many London Boroughs seem to have left their residents firmly in the dark.

'No, you can put it in the normal household waste, that’s fine!' - this was the advice given by the London Borough of Bromley’s call centre, seemingly uninformed of both the need to recycle CFLs and of their organisation's ability to do just that.

When it comes to information regarding waste collection and recycling, local authorities would seem to be the obvious place to turn to for reliable advice. Is this, then, an acceptable practice? One can hardly expect recycling facilities to be actively used by the public if the latter is not made aware of their existence.

The blind leading the blind

Sadly, the misleading information does not stop here. The Ecologist telephoned the call centres of each London Borough and asked whether energy saving bulbs had to be taken to a special recycling centre, or whether they could be thrown out with normal refuse. The results were disappointing.

Westminster City’s call centre told us: 'Just put them in the normal waste, as far as I know'. When this was brought to the Council’s attention, a spokesperson explained: 'You were given very poor info by someone who needs some retraining'.

Happily, a subsequent call to the Council did yield correct advice on the issue. The spokesperson added: 'Call handling staff are given clear instructions on this issue, which was borne out by the second call you made. While we believe the inaccurate information given first time round was an isolated incident, we will be reminding all our staff of the correct procedures as we take our duty to protect the environment and minimise waste extremely seriously.'

All told, 75 per cent of the Boroughs said that CFLs can just be thrown away with regular garbage – this is despite the fact that each Borough either contains, or has access to, a waste disposal site capable of recycling energy saving bulbs and other hazardous electrical items. Many of the Boroughs seemed to be more preoccupied with wrapping up the lamps to protect refuse workers from the sharp edges that might result were any bulbs to break - an admirable nod to health and safety, but well wide of their environmental obligations.

'I just put mine straight in the trash'

Worse still were those council representatives who, despite being aware of the availability of recycling facilities, instead chose to actively discourage their use.

'If it’s just one thing, no-one’s going to drive all the way down to the [recycling] centre,' said an operator on Brent Council’s helpline.

A representative from Richmond misunderstood the point of recycling CFLs completely: 'Now, I just put mine straight in the trash; there is a recycling centre, but the energy you waste in getting there is greater than saved by recycling it... there's nothing to stop it going into the landfill.'

With the prevalence of computers, people are also likely to turn to the internet as a source of information: here, the councils' respective websites offered more accurate information than their helplines, yet only 53 per cent of them had the correct information regarding light bulb disposal available to the public online.

The need for publicity

Fundamentally, the problem would seem to be one of organisation – the facilities are there, they simply need to be given better publicity. An example of such is well set by Sutton council, whose operators were knowledgeable about the recycling facilities available, and whose website offers clear and simple advice on both recycling and how to safely deal with broken CFLs. In the last year, Sutton has increased the recycling rate at its Reuse and Recycling Centre from 33 to 75 per cent – and earlier this month, a waste and recycling leaflet was delivered to every home in the Borough.

'Councils need to tap into this enthusiasm by repeating clear, no-nonsense messages about how to recycle and what the benefits are both to the environment and our finances,' says Councillor Colin Hall, the Executive Member for Environment on Sutton Council.

Lightbulb retailers have also taken some important steps. Sainsbury’s recently launched a light bulb collection scheme in collaboration with Recolight. Started in December, the service has expanded to include 200 stores across the country. Sainsbury’s Environmental Affairs Manager, Jack Cunningham, says: 'All customers have to do is bring back their light bulbs and pop them in the recycling bin in the same way as any normal recycling service. There is no other requirement on customers – simple really!' Recolight has also launched their ‘Big Light Project', which uses cartoon character ‘Professor Bright’ to engage school children with the importance of recycling light bulbs.

Another awareness scheme, run by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP) last year, saw some successful results: 'The pilot campaigns with 12 local authorities in March and April saw an average increase of 29 per cent in collection of small electricals at civic amenity sites compared with the same period last year,' says Lucy-Michael Sutton, press officer for the BIS, adding: 'Materials have been updated and are still available on the Recycle Now partners website for use by local authorities seeking to run campaigns.'

No pressure from above

It's clear that making the effort to tell people about how easy it is to recycle CFLs really does reduce the number that are thrown into landfills. Unfortunately, local authorities have no legal obligation to run such awareness-raising programmes. In fact at the moment the only legislation on the table concerning CFLs, the European Waste Electrical and Electronic (WEEE) directive, is aimed instead at putting pressure on electrical manufacturers to reduce levels of such waste – but it does stress both that 'Member States should adopt appropriate measures … to achieve a high level of separate collection of WEEE from private households', and that 'Information to users about the requirement not to dispose of WEEE as unsorted municipal waste … is indispensable for the success of WEEE collection'.

Our investigation seems to suggest that these recommendations haven't found their way into UK Government policy. Yes, all energy saving light bulbs have indeed been marked with the delightfully named 'crossed out wheeled bin' symbol, but - even for those who understand its significance - this hardly informs people where to dispose of CFLs. Yes, manufacturers and retailers are indeed being made to take responsibility for the recycling of their electrical products and often work together with local authorities to do so - but there are limits to these schemes, and as a result, many people are blissfully unaware of them – including, as it seems, call operators for the councils themselves.

What's needed, argues Mike Webster, senior consultant for environmental charity Waste Watch, is some simplicity:
'What we need is a comprehensive, nationwide system of drop-off points - similar to the regime now in place for batteries - or even the inclusion of CFLs in kerbside collections. This needs to be supported by a nation-wide promotional campaign, similar to the Recycle Now campaign, that explains how and why CFLS, and WEEE more generally, should be recycled.'

Ian Randall is a freelance journalist

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