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Special Report

Light on mercury

6 Comments
Author(s): Ruhi Kandhari
Feb 15, 2011 | From the print edition

Regulations to check mercury pollution take backseat as Centre promotes fluorescent light

imageSifting through Delhi’s municipal rubbish every day, Anwarul Shaikh and Rupa Begum often find broken CFL bulbs mixed in kitchen and other domestic waste. The compact fluorescent lamps have replaced incandescent bulbs in garbage mounds in the past couple of years, Rupa said, picking a few up. The glass tube and plastic end cap of a CFL fetch them up to Rs 3. Of late, Anwarul has been complaining of restricted vision. “It’s difficult to recognise distance between objects and me. I keep bumping into waste,” he said.

Mercury vapour in broken CFLs could be the reason for Anwarul’s condition, said T K Joshi, director, occupational and environmental programmes centre of Maulana Azad Medical College in Delhi. Since mercury is a neurotoxin, it can affect all organs of the body. Its major impact is on the brain, lungs and kidneys, said Joshi.

But with growing demand for energy- efficient lighting, the country’s production capacity for CFLs has gone up 25 times—from 19 million in 2002 to 500 million in 2010. Centre’s Bachat Lamp Yojana, a scheme to popularise CFLs, alone has pushed 20 million CFLs in the past three years. And all this is without any check on mercury pollution.

The CFLs sold in the country have 3- 12 mg of mercury. As per the standards proposed by the International Electrotechnical Commission it should not be more than 5 mg. Advanced technologies have even helped manufacturers in USA and Europe produce CFLs with just 1 mg of mercury. “Indian industry does not have any mandatory or voluntary standards for regulating mercury in florescent lights,” said Gopal Krishna of Toxics Watch, a non-profit in Delhi.

  Indian industry does not have mandatory or voluntary standards for regulating mercury in CFL  
 
 

Centre should have promoted energy efficient LED (light emitting diode) lights that do not contain mercury, he added. Assuming that each of the 350 million CFL bulbs produced in 2009 contained 5 mg mercury, 1,750 kg mercury would have been added to the waste in 2010. “There is no recycling unit for fluorescent lamps in India,” said an official at the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB). In 2008 the board framed guidelines on mercury management in the CFL sector. It said all mercury-contaminated lamps and cut glass tips “may be treated or recycled” in a recycling unit at production site or at an authorised unit.

CPCB guideline was based on a task force report commissioned by Union environment ministry in 2007. Headed by the ministry’s additional secretary A K Khwaja, it is the only committee set up so far to look into the safe use and disposal of mercury in fluorescent lamp sector. The task force had recommended the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) to draw up standards for the amount of mercury in CFLs. But BIS is yet to drft mandatory standards. “One of the hindrances is the lack of advanced testing facility in the country,” said H C Kandpal of the National Physical Laboratory.

He is part of the BIS committee working on mercury standards in CFLs. The task force had also called for a tax on CFLs to finance safe disposal of mercury. Its report mentioned industries could buy back CFLs for recycling them. The report did not go down well with the industry, which has commissioned another study.

“Both the CPCB guidelines and the task force report were sketchy and could not be used to frame laws on the complex CFL disposal issue,” said spokesperson of Electric Lamp and Components Manufacturers Association of India (ELCOMA). Industry sources suggest if buy-back is made compulsory, it will add to the cost of CFLs.

So, the industry is buying time by commissioning another study. “After the report is out, ELCOMA plans to seek public opinion and government’s response,” said an industry analyst. A draft law may be ready by the end of 2011. It would take another couple of years before the law comes into force and recycling units are established, he added. And by that time another 2,500 kg of mercury would have been released into the environment.

AddThis

Here’s an idea for the CFL world. Add a recycling fee to all CFLs (similar to the redemption fee many states charge on aluminum cans and plastic bottle but much bigger). If a customer wants to buy a new CFL, and they have an old one to turn in then wave the fee, but if the customer doesn’t have a spent bulb to exchange then charge them a $5 recycling fee and give them a $5 gift card that can only be used the next time they turn in a spent bulb.

2 February 2011
Posted by
bpowers

The ecological cost of mercury poisoning is far too much compared to the savings it generates when the lives they affect are taken into account. There are many organisations running various Environment related projects with the help of school children and their schools. NOT one of them is seen running anything related to recycling of CFLs. Isn't the CFL industry morally obliged to give back to the society from which they are earning crores of rupees. The recycling facility will not only remove mercury from the cycle, it will also generate value for them from teh ewaste they will recycle. Probably, we the user public should join hands in pressurising the manufacturers ( which include big names like Philips and Bajaj) to include CFL recycling in their scheme of things before buying their CFLs. We may even switch to LED lighting ( A little expensive as of now)and not buy their CFLs. Hope this registers somewhere
Prasad

4 February 2011
Posted by
prasad

I too believe in recycling - there cannot be any two ways about this - and responsible recycling at that. The onus should be a lot more on the producer, and a good deal on the consumer. But these pages are far ahead of the times we live in - where the average literate person is yet to be convinced of his or her own environmental responsibility.

8 February 2011
Posted by
Swarna

I agree with all of you. There must be sharing of responsibility between consumers and producers but unfortunately the CFL industry is not ready to take this responsibility. They are trying to postpone an inevitable policy where the producer will have to include the cost of recycling and ensure the broken and used CFLs reach the recycling facility. While most countries are extending Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) it has still not been implemented in India. Swarna, as you said, 'responsible recycling' is the need of the hour for growing municipal and hazardous waste in India. And as you mentioned Prasad, shifting to LEDs would be a better energy efficient option over CFLs.

8 March 2011
Posted by
Ruhi

Can we request the government or put up a petition to make their decision quicker....can anybody suggest whom to write....can online petitions like thepetitionsite.com be used?

25 February 2013
Posted by
Anonymous

Thank you for sharing this resourceful and interesting post. Keep it up yr good work. Carol

7 November 2013
Posted by
Carol

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