Disposal dilemma.

15/04/2010 02:48

Because of their mercury and PCB contents, old fluorescent lights should not be dumped in the bin but the Government has no solution for such waste as yet.

HOW many light bulbs do you have at home? What kind are they? How many do you change in a year? What do you do with the spoilt lights? Throw them in the thrash? Recycle them? What happens to these light bulbs once you throw them away?

For some, these questions may seem pointless. After all, a typical household may only need to change one or two light bulbs a year – surely such a miniscule amount of light bulbs won’t cause any harm, right?

Well, think again. Depending on what sort of light bulb you are using, be it incandescent, fluorescent or compact fluorescent light bulbs, you could be still be releasing toxics such as lead polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) and liquid mercury into the environment. You might think that discarding one or two light bulbs won’t make a difference but what if each of the millions of households in Malaysia thought the same? Now that would be a lot of light bulbs, wouldn’t it?

An official of a major player in the solid waste management industry (who wishes to remain anonymous) says light bulbs should not be disposed together with household waste as they would only end up in dumpsites and landfills, and could contaminate groundwater if the landfills are not lined or equipped with leachate treatment facilities.

The thing is, almost every single component of a compact fluorescent light (CFL) can be recycled. The metal parts can be sold as scrap metal, the glass can be recycled into other glass products, and most importantly, the hazardous mercury can be reused to make new light bulbs. Unfortunately, while there is a need to recycle light bulbs, or at least dispose of them correctly, there are currently few options available to the general public. There are currently no specific guidelines or regulations concerning the disposal of light bulbs. Because they contain liquid mercury, light bulbs are classified as “scheduled waste” – this requires that they be treated like any other hazardous industrial waste.

This means two things – we cannot throw them out with the trash, and they should be properly disposed off, either at a recycling plant or at an approved hazardous waste facility (such as Kualiti Alam in Bukit Nanas, Negeri Sembilan).

But these legal provisions have never been enforced. Perhaps because no system or procedure are in place to collect hazardous waste from households which includes lights, old paints and batteries, unlike in countries such as Germany, where there are designated places to send such waste.

Also, the Department of Environment has said that its jurisdiction does not cover household waste. And even if such waste was collected, who is going to pay for the disposal say, at Kualiti Alam? Certainly not the domestic waste concessionaires such as Alam Flora or Southern Waste Management, who would insist that scheduled waste is not under their purview.

As such, all our discarded lights have ended up in dumpsites and landfills – sources from the waste concessionaires admit as much. This is also confirmed by Dr Nadzri Yahaya, director-general of the National Solid Waste Management Department: “Right now, light bulbs from household waste are all dumped together with normal garbage, which all ends up in landfills.”

He assures however, that when the Solid Waste And Public Cleansing Management Act 2007 comes into place, there will be a regulation requiring households to sort their waste. “We will then collect the light bulbs and keep them in storage until there is a large amount for sending to recycling plants or proper disposal at facilities prescribed by the DOE.”

Nadzri sees rising awareness among Malaysians on the hazards posed by discarded lights but there is just no means of proper disposal.

“That’s where the regulation comes in. We get them to sort at source, then we help them recycle or dispose of it properly,” he says.

A source in the solid waste industry says a take-back system through retailers is the best solution for the disposal of light bulbs. Such a take-back policy exists in Europe, whereby the responsibility for disposal of electrical and electronic equipment waste is imposed on the manufacturers. These companies must establish an infrastructure to collect the waste from consumers free of charge but the cost would have already been added to retail prices.

The good news is, such a policy might come up in Malaysia soon. A Department of Environment (DOE) official discloses that the agency is working on a take-back system for electronics and electrical items under the Environmental Quality Act – Environmental (Scheduled Waste) Regulation 2005.

But until these collection systems for waste bulbs are up and running, there is little that consumers can do except to just store those old bulbs – that is what some green-minded individuals are doing.




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