In Australia, an estimated 95% of mercury-containing lighting products end up as landfill each year.
While Australian Standards specify that fluorescent tubes should contain no more than 15mg of mercury and less than 5mg in compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), it is the accumulation of mercury in landfill across Australia that is a cause for concern. Here, the mercury converts to toxic methylmercury and can spread through air, water and soil, potentially harming humans in the process.
Yet there is some good news on the horizon: mercury-containing lights also happen to be one of the easiest products to target and prevent from entering the waste stream.
Last year, the Australian Government teamed up with Lighting Council Australia to launch the FluoroCycle scheme and establish partnerships with the electrical industry to reduce the amount of mercury entering the environment. This scheme was in response to an initiative through the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), which is attempting to negotiate a global, legally-binding instrument on mercury in 2009.
Lorraine Lilley is the project manager for FluoroCycle and she says it’s an effective way for electricians to get involved in the recycling game.
“FluoroCycle is purely a voluntary scheme. But we encourage all electrical contractors to become signatories and promote the initiative to their customers. For example, if an electrical contractor is re-lamping a site, we ask that they recycle the waste lamps instead of sending them to landfill,” she says.
There are two categories of signatories to the FluoroCycle scheme: a commercial user (an organisation that owns or manages premises such as office blocks, industrial facilities, etc.) or a facilitator (an organisation that commits to promoting FluoroCycle to their customers, members or networks).
The scheme operates on the principle of self-certification and at the end of 12 months, a signatory will be asked to submit a statement that the organisation is adhering to the requirements of the scheme. As the administrator, Lighting Council Australia will also undertake random audits to ensure compliance with the FluoroCycle scheme.
Program presents many opportunities
NECA chief executive James Tinslay says he expects the program will create many opportunities for the electrical industry to do their part for the environment.
“NECA expects many electrical contractors will be able to develop new business opportunities as a result of our representation to government when they sign up to FluoroCycle,” he says.
“Our advocacy on behalf of the industry cements NECA’s position at the forefront of environmental policies.”
All elements in the waste lamps can be recycled, including the mercury, glass, phosphor powder and aluminium. At the end of a lamp’s life, the majority of the mercury remains in phosphor powder. The lamps are crushed to extract the powder and this is then put into a mercury retort to recover the elemental mercury.
“The aluminium is used in other products while the glass and phosphor powder can be used in fertiliser,” Lorraine says.
Currently there are over 100 companies already signed up to FluoroCycle, with hopes that the amount will double by the end of the year. The scheme is currently targeting major corporate organisations given that the bulk of the lighting comes from the commercial and industrial sectors, but Lorraine says that households may also be included in the future.
“It hasn’t been defined yet, but the scheme could potentially extend through to householders in the long term. The mercury contained in a home’s CFL is very small and it has an average lifespan of between two and three years. We believe CFLs aren’t entering the waste stream in huge numbers at the moment, but that could change in another couple of years.”
Electricians urged to get involved
In the meantime, she urges electricians to get involved with FluoroCycle.
“Electricians can then let their customers know that they’re a signatory to FluoroCycle. Their company logo and a link to their website will be included on the website and they will also receive a certificate recognising their commitment to the scheme. Some councils and organisations are already asking whether electrical contractors are signatories, so there is a value-add aspect to it,” she says.
“There is no cost to become a signatory, apart from making the commitment to the scheme itself. Electricians can then use the FluoroCycle logo and receive some public recognition for their commitment to the environment.”