No mech­a­nism to check proper dis­posal of mer­cury-laden CFLS

Why no one is check­ing how mer­cury-laden CFLs are han­dled and dis­carded

Down to Earth - - CONTENTS - SOMA BASU

Neeta Chan­dra, a 26- year- old home maker, re­cently read a Face­book post about the pres­ence of mer­cury in Com­pact Fluo re - scent Lamps ( CFL) and its dan­gers. She was shocked. When CFLs came into the mar­ket, she was the one who made sure her par­ents got rid of in­can­des­cent bulbs and switched to CFL to re­duce the elec­tric­ity bill. Ner­vously, she looked up on the In­ter­net about mer­cury poi­son­ing and came across the Mi­na­mata dis­ease in Ja­pan in the 1950s, which claimed more than 1,000 lives when sea wa­ters got con­tam­i­nated with methyl mer­cury. Neeta counted the num­ber of CFLs in her house—there were 15 of them. “If cig­a­rette pack­ets can have a warn­ing, why can’t CFLs? I did not even know CFLs have mer­cury, and the govern­ment has been pro­mot­ing them. How can it be so ir­re­spon­si­ble?” she asks.

What paci­fies her is the fact that mer­cury will es­cape from the lamps only when they break. Which means Neeta can con­tinue us­ing CFLs but will have to be care­ful about their dis­posal, es­pe­cially when she has a two-year-old son and a pet dog run­ning around the house. “The kabari­wala does not want to take it. I have no other op­tion but to throw used CFLs in the bin,” she says.

Adil, a kabari­wala in Neeta’s lo­cal­ity, ex­plains there is no profit in col­lect­ing used CFLs. “It is too much of a has­sle. Most of the time the tubes break and the scrap traders do not pay much,” he says. Scrap traders send such lamps to re­cy­clers, most of whom are based in East Delhi’s Shah­dara or See­lam­pur ar­eas, hubs of elec­tronic waste. “The traders are not keen on tak­ing lamps be­cause they need at least three bag­fuls of used lamps to be sent to See­lam­pur. I get a CFL oc­ca­sion­ally,” says Adil, who pays ` 1 for the bulb. He adds that kabari­walas will be en­cour­aged to col­lect used CFLs if they get mon­e­tary in­cen­tive.

Neeta is just one among the few people who know that all CFLs have mer­cury, a haz­ardous metal that can af­fect the brain and the ner­vous sys­tem. She is will­ing to give away lamps to kabari­walas for free. “I am even ready to pay a small price if this could help in proper dis­posal of these lamps, but how do I go about it?” she asks. Ac­cord­ing to a sur­vey by the en­vi­ron­men­tal re­search and ac­tion group, Chin­tan, and Ger­man So­ci­ety for In­ter­na­tional Co­op­er­a­tion ( GIZ), about 70 per cent of the re­spon­dents in Delhi and Kolkata are ready to pay ex­tra to en­sure safe dis­posal of CFLs ( see ‘ Key find­ings of Chin­tan- GIZ sur­vey’, p22). A joint study by the two groups in late 2013 pro­posed that a mar­ginal in­cen­tive of ` 2.50 to ` 3 could en­cour­age kabari­walas to col­lect CFL bulbs. The re­port was sub­mit­ted to MoEF early this year, but has been gath­er­ing dust as no one from the min­istry paid heed.

No dis­posal mech­a­nism

There is no waste man­age­ment sys­tem or in­fra­struc­ture in the coun­try to prop­erly sep­a­rate, seg­re­gate and han­dle endof-life and dis­carded CFLs. This in­creases the chances of mer­cury en­ter­ing the waste stream and the food chain. In the ab­sence of a proper mech­a­nism, used CFLs are thrown in the garbage or

dumped at land­fills. Rag­pick­ers, who sort bro­ken CFLs with­out wear­ing gloves or masks, are di rectly ex­posed to the mer­cury re­leased.

In­dus­try fig­ures state that the man­u­fac­ture of CFLs in In­dia has in­creased man­i­fold— from 67 mil­lion in 2005 to 304 mil­lion in 2010 and to 750 mil­lion in 2014 ( see ‘ CFL us­age is grow­ing’). Ac­cord­ing to stud­ies by Delhi- based non- profit Tox­ics Link, more than 15 tonnes of mer­cury from CFLs have al­ready leached into the en­vi­ron­ment.

The Union Min­istry of En­v­i­ron - ment and Forests ( MoEF), along with the Cen­tral Pol­lu­tion Con­trol Board ( CPCB), was re­spon­si­ble for fram­ing a law on the safe dis­posal of CFLs. MoEF has missed sev­eral dead­lines. In 2007, the min­istry had set up a task force to look into the mat­ter. The task force, com­pris­ing mem­bers of the Bureau of En­ergy Ef­fi­ciency ( BEE) un­der the Min­istry of Power, CPCB, MoEF and in­dus­try rep­re­sen­ta­tives, sub­mit­ted its re­port to MoEF in May 2008. But the in­dus­try re­jected the re­port, say­ing that if any of the sug­ges­tions were made manda­tory, it would make CFLs ex­pen­sive.

The in­dus­try then com­mis­sioned The En­ergy and Re­sources In­sti­tute ( TERI) to pre­pare a re­port on mer­cury con­tent in CFLs and their dis­posal, which was to be fi­nalised and sub­mit­ted to MoEF in the be­gin­ning of 2012. The re­port, which was pre­sented to an in­ter­min­is­te­rial group, sug­gested a pi­lot project of six to eight months in Delhi, Ahmed­abad and Ben­galuru. The twophase pi­lot was pro­posed to start in March 2012. Un­der this plan, CFLs were to be col­lected and dis­posed of in crusher drums, which would be car­bon coated to con­tain the mer­cury re­leased from the crushed CFLs. These would then be taken to a mother plant where glass and alu­minium would be ex­tracted from the waste for re­cy­cling. MoEF did not ap­prove the project. “The TERI re­port died a nat­u­ral death. On the other hand, the in­dus­try has not even agreed to put mar kings on the lamps stat­ing how much mer­cury they con­tain,” says Satish Sinha, as­so­ciate di­rec­tor of Tox­ics Link.

No mer­cury limit in CFL bulbs

In Novem­ber 2008, CPCB had re­leased tech­ni­cal guide­lines for en­vi­ron­men­tal- ly sound mer­cury man­age­ment for CFLs. Al­though the guide­lines aimed at re­duc­ing mer­cury lev­els us­ing the best avail­able tech­nol­ogy, the body did not pre­scribe an up­per limit for the mer­cury con­tent. As such, there are no legally bind­ing reg­u­la­tions in the coun­try on per­mis­si­ble lev­els of mer­cury in CFLs. In In­dia, this is four to six times higher than the stan­dards in de­vel­oped coun­tries, such as Ger­many, which per­mits 5 mg of mer­cury in CFLs. “In In­dia the mer­cury con­tent in CFLs is as high as 21.21 mg. Most of the CFL man­u­fac­tur­ers are multi­na­tion­als. If they can ad­here to mer­cury limit for lamps in Euro­pean na­tions, why can’t they do it here?” asks Sinha.

Shyam Su­jan, sec­re­tary gen­eral of the Elec­tric Lamp and Com­po­nents Man­u­fac­tur­ers’ As­so­ci­a­tion of In­dia, which rep­re­sents the CFL man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­try, blames MoEF and the Delhi govern­ment for de­lay­ing the pi­lot project sug­gested by the in­dus­try. “We asked the govern­ment to set up a treat­ment fa­cil­ity, but it could not pro­vide us land,” he says.

Su­jan adds that sev­eral com­pa­nies have set up their own CFL treat­ment cen­tres. Phillips In­dia, for ex­am­ple, has set up a fa­cil­ity in Mo­hali, Crompton has its plant in Vado­dara, GE in Ben - galuru, Ven­ture in Chen­nai and Surya in Harid­war. When Neeta came to know of Phillips’ dis­posal fa­cil­ity, she called up Philips cus­tomer care so that all the CFL bulbs she had col­lected could be dis­posed of safely. She was asked to con­tact Philips’ area man­ager Gau­rav Tyagi. He did not re­spond to her calls.

“We can­not do ev­ery­thing alone and need the govern­ment’s help. The min­istry has been too slow. Still we have pooled in our re­sources. Com­pa­nies now man­u­fac­ture bulbs with lesser mer­cury con­tent. For ex­am­ple, a 14- Watt CFL now has less than 3 mg of mer­cury,” Su­jan ex­plains.

An al­ter­na­tive to CFL is Light Emit­ting Diode ( LED) bulbs. These are safer as LED beams nei­ther emit ra­di­a­tion nor con­tain mer­cury. They are also more ef­fi­cient and long- last­ing. But they are ex­pen­sive. While a 14- Watt CFL bulb costs ` 120, an LED bulb of the same wattage comes for ` 320. Su­jan, how­ever, es­ti­mates that with the in­crease in de - mand for LEDs, their cost is ex­pected to equal that of CFLs by the end of 2015.

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