Recycling of CFLs

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Recycling of CFLs in different countries

It is of primordial importance that, when governments entrust mercury containing products to the consumers, all these products are properly disposed of. If this aim cannot be reached, the CFL program has to be stopped immediately.

The theory is that:

  • All of the components of CFLs can be recycled, including metal end caps, glass tubing, mercury, and phosphor powder. The metal portions can be sold as scrap metal; the glass can be manufactured into other glass products; and the mercury can be recycled into new fluorescent light bulbs and/or other mercury-added devices. (Northeast Wast Management Official's Association (NEWMOA), Review of Compact Fluorescent Lamp Recycling Initiatives in the U.S. & Internationally, July 23, 2009.
  • Collected CFLi’s at end of life are crushed in a closed installation and sieved. The mercury containing fraction is distillated at 600°C to separate the mercury. The pure, metallic mercury is used again by lamp industry. (VITO, Final Report. Lot 19: Domestic lighting. Study for European Commission DGTREN unit D3, October 2009,p. 134)

1. Brazil

According to the study of Felipe Carlos Bastos, Análise da política de banimento de lâmpadas incandescentes do mercado brasileiro, March 2011, before 1993, CFLs were not recycled. In 1993, the first enterprise started to treat end-of-life CFLs. In 2010, recycling companies were found in 13 Brazilian states. (Brazil counts 26 states.) (F. Bastos, p. 79)

The cost of the recycling of one CFL in Brazil in 2010 was from R$ 0.50 to R$ 0.70. This price has to be completed with the costs of transport, packaging costs and accident insurance, so that the total cost of the recycling process can be more than R$ 1.00 per CFL. (At the end of 2011, the exchange rate was (R$ = BRL) BRL 1.88 to USD 1.00.) The collection and recycling of CFLs is very different from other waste products. The bulbs are fragile, must comply with the regularisations of the transport of dangerous waste, have a low weight and a large volume and don't afford any value at the end-of-life. (F. Bastos, p. 97)

The phasing out of incandescent lamps and the promotion of CFLs in Brazil, from June 30, 2012 on, is very worrisome because of the lack of an efficient system of the removal of solid waste. (Bastos, p. 81)

2. United States

There are no estimated CFL recycling rates available for Massachusetts or any other states at this time. (Newmoa, p. 6) According to a study of the year 2004, only about 2% of household fluorescent lamps were recycled in the U.S. (NEEP CFL Disposal & Recycling Report and Recommendations, September 10, 2008) Energy-efficient CFLs are increasingly popular but few people recycle the bulbs. As a result, U.S. landfills are releasing more than 4 tons of mercury annually into the atmosphere and storm water runoff, a study says. Los Angeles Times, April 7, 2011

  • How are CFLs recycled?

    First, CFLs are gathered, packaged for transportation, and delivered to a recycling facility. Then the CFLs are brought into a negative pressure room where the bases are separated from the bulbs. Depending on the facility, this process can happen manually by workers in Tyvek suits or through a machine that also creates a negative pressure chamber. The bases are further separated into ballast and casing. The base components are chopped up and the materials separated and recovered by type i.e. plastics, metals, for remanufacturing. Next the bulb is crushed by implosion. The Phosphor/mercury powder is separated from the glass using a vibrating conveyor belt and is then blown into a bag house. The glass is recovered for use in manufacturing fiberglass or other glass products including new CFLs. The Phosphor powder is collected in sealed drums and retorted for mercury reclamation and Phosphor powder re-use. Several national companies are in the business of performing these processes including Veolia Environmental Services, Waste Management, Earth Protection Services, Inc. (EPSI), etc.

  • How much does it cost to recycle a CFL, including collecting, storing, transporting and deconstruction?

    The cost can range from $0.35 - $2.00 per lamp; however, the typical average is $0.50 - $0.75 per lamp. (...) Most municipalities that accept CFLs for recycling or safe disposal, charge a drop-off fee, typically $1 per lamp, to offset the cost of recycling. (NEEP CFL Disposal & Recycling, 2008)

Some examples of funding or the recycling of CFLs (Source: NEEP CFL Disposal & Recycling, 2008)

  • Maine: Recycling costs are being paid out of Efficiency Maine’s budget. Cost to Efficiency Maine of recycling falls in the $.50-.70 per bulb range.
  • New Hampshire: (New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services DES) DES currently funds the collection and recycling cost through money from a power generation company settlement/licensing fee that has to be spent on projects to reduce mercury. The contracts are about to be renewed and it is likely there will be enough money to last at least two more years. After that, the Department is hoping that either the participating retailers pick up the costs as a customer service or that they continue the program by charging customers around Costs for retailer education and mail back recycling pails are covered by utility-funded Focus on Energy. Focus is charged $90 for each pail of between 200-250 CFLs (<$.50/bulb). Individual towns cover the costs of recycling at their municipal facilities.0.50 per lamp.
  • Vermont: The program is funded through SEP (Supplemental Environmental Project) funding, or basically, environmental fines. (...) It is not clear how long the SEP money will be available.
  • New York: Without financial support, the recruitment of retailers to assume the costs of recycling may be difficult.
  • Wisconsin: Costs for retailer education and mail back recycling pails are covered by utility-funded Focus on Energy. Focus is charged $90 for each pail of between 200-250 CFLs (<$.50/bulb). Individual towns cover the costs of recycling at their municipal facilities.
  • Illinois: ComEd shares the cost of the Veolia recycling service with the Illinois EPA. Funds come directly from the efficiency budget.
  • Oregon: Evaluations of the original year long pilot program [October 2004 - October 2005) showed that recycling costs were above $0.50 per CFL and $3.74 when marketing expenses were included.

Approximately 620 million fluorescent bulbs are discarded yearly. Despite the existence of recycling programs, it is estimated that only about 20% of discarded bulbs are recycled nationally. It is probable that most of the bulbs that are not recycled are broken during disposal. Extrapolation of the results of this study suggests that discarded fluorescent bulbs release approximately 2 to 4 tons/year of mercury in the U.S. (Release_merc2004, p. 3)

Remark: Up to 30% of spent fluorescent bulbs are currently recycled to remove mercury. However, most rare earth-containing phosphors from spent bulbs end up in landfills. (DOE 2011, p. 42)

Conclusion: The collection and recycling of CFLs has failed on a large scale in the U.S. Despite the high public funding ($0.50 to $3.74 per lamp - the latter cost if marketing expenses are included), a small minority of the residential customers is disposing of their CFLs on a proper manner. I don't know any other program where mercury containing products are funded on such a scale. Not only the promotion of CFLs but also the collection and recycling of CFLs require a large part of public expenditure. What should be the cost of the clearing up of the mercury seeped in the groundwater from CFLs disposed of improperly in landfills?

3. Europe

The general impression from material collected by Enerlin partners, contact to manufacturers and EU27 country representatives is that the recycling system for collection of mercury from fluorescent lamps is in most countries not implemented properly - especially it is not well implemented for the residential sector. A large part of the domestic consumers even don’t know that a CFLi contains mercury and that they should give back the disposed CFLi for recycling. (Report on CFL Recycling across Europe. (EnERLIn: Energy Efficient Residential Lighting Initiative)) And: It was estimated that, in 2007, households only recycled 20% of burned-out compact fluorescent lamps, while the remainder was discarded inappropriately with unsorted waste. (Source)

"Notwithstanding the fact that many components (glass, metal parts, phosphors and mercury) can be recycled, recycling doesn’t seem to be very profitable. As a consequence, many people don’t know what to do with their used lamps, moreover they don’t even know that CFLi’s are containing mercury." (VITO-study Final Report. Lot 19: Domestic lighting. Study for European Commission DGTREN unit D3, October 2009,p. 105.)

Note that recycling rates are generally lower than collection rates, because some collected mercury containing waste may be landfilled/deposited and not recycled. (Source: Options for reducing mercury use in products and applications, and the fate of mercury already circulating in society, December 2008, p. 6.) Example:

  • Quantities from light sources ending up in waste 14 tonnes Hg/year, while only 1.6 tonnes per year are recycled.
  • It means that only 10% was recycled (and not 20% as usually is assumed)!

Remark: Some countries are confronted with specific problems.

  • Sweden

    CFLs with mercury was presented as an environmental benefit. But there are large gaps in recycling. Svenska Dagbladet can now tell you that each year 200,000 CFLs are wrongly thrown in the bottle bank. From there they spread further toxins into our country. Read more about this article.

    A 2006 inquiry made by a large European retailer in Sweden found that only a fraction of the customers did bring their used CFLi’s to a recycling point and that another segment threw away their lamps in the domestic waste in spite of the marking on the packaging.(EnERLIn)

  • Germany

    Lightcycle estimates that the CFLs recycled through the program in 2008 were approximately seven percent of all CFLs that were generated as waste (including both household and commercial CFLs). However, the CFL recycling rate for households alone is less; they estimate that approximately two percent of these CFLs are recycled through the program. Most residential CFLs are thrown in the household trash because there is no requirement for them to be recycled. (Lightcycle: Lightcycle Retourlogistik und Service GmbH) (Newmoa, p. 20)

Belgian newspaper "De Standaard", October 1, 2012: One of the major specialists in the field of recycling of fluorescent lamps is the Belgian waste management company Indaver. In the coming years, this company will be more and more the starting point for the recycling of CFLs, explains spokesman Jos Artois. Until recent years, the mercury-containing powder from fluorescent lamps and energy saving lamps was simply deposited in a landfill. "But since some years we do it no longer. Everything is now stored. Awaiting starting up installations where such substances can be recycled."

One of the leaders in research in the field is the French chemical company Rhodia. The growing interest of Rhodia for the powder in the lamps is explained by the price of rare earth metals. Rhodia, taken over last year by Solvay, invested in its French offices in Saint-Fons (in the Rhone Valley) and La Rochelle (on the Atlantic coast) EUR 15 million in recycling plants. In Saint-Fons, the emphasis lies on the separation of the rare earth metals from the glass remnants. La Rochelle is responsible for the purification of the substances. In this way, fluorescent lamps and CFLs are now completely recycled. But the question remains: How long has mercury been released in the environment before the beginning of the storage of the mercury containing powder.

4. Australia

Approximately 70 million mercury-added light bulbs (referred to as “globes” in Australia) are generated as waste in Australia each year. The majority of these are linear fluorescent tubes generated by industry and commercial locations. Approximately 20 million bulbs are CFLs and other miscellaneous lighting devices (e.g., circline and u-tube). The spent bulbs represent 2,000 to 2,300 kilograms (kg) of mercury (4,400 to 5,000 pounds). Only two percent of these bulbs are recycled – the rest are landfilled, which is currently legal in Australia.

To date, (June 2008 through December 2008) approximately 6,000 individual bulbs have been collected and recycled through this program [Retail Collection Centers available in the state of Victoria]. However, only about 28 percent of these bulbs contain mercury (approximately 1,680 bulbs) and of these, only 5 percent are CFLs (approximately 85 bulbs). The majority of the bulbs being dropped off at these collection points are incandescent and halogen light bulbs, indicating that consumers are uncertain about which types of bulbs contain mercury and which ones do not. (Newmoa, p. 20-21)

5. China

In 2006, China produced 2.4 billion CFLs – approximately 85 percent of the worldwide total. CFLs are the fastest growing export product in China. The first CFL recycling program for consumers was launched in 2009. (Newmoa, p. 22)

5. Taiwan

Taiwan has the highest rates of CFL recycling, with 87 percent of all fluorescent lamps recycled, due to a compulsory fluorescent lamp recycling program, which was launched in 2002. However, this represents all types of fluorescent lamps and not just CFLs. (Newmoa, p. 21)

6. Japan

In Japan, where 80 percent of households use CFLs, the recycling rate is less than 10 percent. (Newmoa, p. 21)

Conclusions

  • Possibly with the exception of Taiwan, the recycling system for collection of mercury from fluorescent lamps in most countries is not implemented properly. This means that the whole CFL program has to be stopped immediately. Moreover, most countries don't even have collection and recycling statistics!
  • What stands for Sweden, stands also for other countries: Minna Gillberg, environmental expert and former advisor to Margot Wallström during her time as the EU's Environment Commissioner, questions the environmental benefits of energy saving products."It's dangerous how irresponsible this was handled. There is no automatic recovery system, and no collection statistics. First, decades were needed to clear the Sweden of mercury, then it was spread out again, completely out of control. It is absolutely ridiculous," she says to Svenska Dagbladet (SVD).
  • CFLs are less recycled than fluorescent tubes. Tubes are larger and cannot be hided in a dustbin. Incandescent bulbs can be putted in a dustbin without problems.
  • The recycling of CFLs is not profitable. There is no incentive to collect properly the CFLs.
  • It is not wise to put a new burden, i.e. the recycling of CFLs, to private individuals. A toxic metal may not be left on the care of the citizens.
  • An important part of the population thinks that it is a 'green' lamp and that it can be left it in a dustbin. Even in commercials in some countries, in order to advice consumers to bring CFLs to a waste collect center, the word 'mercury' is not used! Example: Recupel campaign of November 2011 in Belgium. Does have the truth of the mercury content in CFLs to remain hidden?
  • The authorities who have a poor control over the proper collection of CFLs are almost criminal because just now the lamps with a high content of mercury bought in the period 1995 to 2005 are at the end-of-life. One knows that CFLs used in these years contained 6 to 10 mg of mercury and even more.

The yearly manufactured CFLs represent 11 to 14 metric tons of mercury or even more. Is our planet not several times more precious than the profit made by substituting incandescent bulbs by CFLs? Quick gains can be made by implementing a ban on CFLs.

Calculation

In 2006, globally about 2.8 billion CFLs were produced. If we assume that each CFL contained 4 to 5 mg of mercury, we ascertain that between 11 to 14 metric tons of mercury was needed. But for 2005, David Lennett estimated that 14.11 tons of mercury was needed to produce 1.76 billion CFLs in China (Source), i.e. an average of 8 mg Hg per CFL! So, globally, the real number can be still higher than 14 metric tons mercury. Would you ever approve an action that could pollute the planet on such a large scale? I don't think so. The only solution is to reduce the mercury emission of power plants. The consumption of mercury containing CFLs has to be banned immediately. A too large irreparable pollution of grounds has already been executed!

An interesting conference took place in Brussels on June 27, 2008: Mercury-containing lamps under the spotlight.

My comment: The story of the ban on incandescent bulbs and the wholesale introduction of mercury containing fluorescent lamps is on its way to become the greatest tragedy of mankind. Globally, only 10 to 20% of the CFLs are properly disposed of! This means that yearly about 17 tons of mercury - only coming from the CFLs - is polluting our planet in every country.

References

Last updated on April 2, 2012