Discard used bulbs and light tubes with care

8. ledna 2013 v 4:26
THE writing is on the wall for the conventional incandescent bulb that many of us grew up with: by 2014, the sale of such bulbs here (and in most of the developed world) will cease. In its place, consumers are asked to switch to the more energy-efficient fluorescent or compact fluorescent lights, and light emitting diodes (LEDs).

Thankfully, Malaysians do not need the ban on incandescents to make them switch, as most are already willing to spend a bit more on alternatives in order to enjoy some savings in their electricity bills. The most common choice would be the compact fluorescent light (CFL) on account of its affordability and easy availability. For example, an 18W CFL light costs only RM9, as opposed to the far more costly LED, even if the latter promises more savings.

According to the Government, the widespread adoption of CFLs and LEDs will help the nation reduce its carbon intensity by 40% in 2020 (compared to 2005 levels), and can save consumers about RM336mil a year.

The downside of CFLs is that each bulb contains a small amount of mercury, typically around 4mg, that remain sealed within the glass tubing. Mercury, added in vapour form, is an essential part of the CFL technology, which is now being touted along with LEDs, as part of the solution to curbing carbon dioxide emissions from electricity generation.

A few milligrams here and there may not be a lot - just for comparison, old mercury-based thermometers can contain up to 500mg of mercury, which is more than what is found in 100 CFLs - but the problem with mercury is that it is a persistent, bioaccumulative toxin. The primary human exposure is from eating seafood contaminated with methyl mercury. However, exposures to elemental mercury vapour and mercury compounds through inhalation and skin contact may also occur. When the cumulative amount is huge, such as through the widespread use of fluorescent lamps, then there might be a real possibility of mercury contaminating landfills.

In many households, the release of mercury vapour from CFLs are likely to be accidental, such as when putting out faulty bulbs together with the rest of the household waste. CFL tubing, being made of glass, can be easily broken through improper handling.

"Even if a household does not break it, the possibility that it will be crushed inside the waste compactor truck is high, and mercury could find its way onto our streets when it flows out of the truck together with leachate, which is quite a common problem already," said David Zon, executive director of Hi-Tech Waste Management, the waste contractor for home furnishing store, Ikea.

Given the increasing prevalence of CFLs, there is a need to prevent accidental or unintentional release of mercury into the environment. In some developed countries, like the United States, there are systematic efforts to salvage usable parts and materials from used CFL bulbs. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the recycling of CFLs and other fluorescent bulbs allows the reuse of the glass, metals and other materials that make up the bulbs. It says virtually all components of a fluorescent bulb can be recycled.

For that to happen anywhere, there needs to be a proper disposal and collection system, whether mandated or otherwise. Malaysian regulations do not state that households need to properly dispose their CFLs. It is the same for Singapore, which allows households to throw away used bulbs along with their household waste.

In parts of the US that do not have collection facilities, some bulb manufacturers and other organisations have resorted to selling pre-labelled recycling kits that allow end-users to mail used bulbs to recycling centres, with the cost of each kit including shipping charges to the recycling centre.

However, Ikea in Malaysia is voluntarily doing its part to help reduce the problem of mercury emissions. It has placed a bulb collection box at its Mutiara Damansara store in Petaling Jaya, Selangor since 2010. No purchase is necessary for people to use the facility.

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