Bright but toxic: The CFL bulbs that Bengaluru is unable to handle

Compact Fluorescent Lamps fall under e-waste category, however Bangalore does not have a system to recycle them. Pic: Wikimedia and Wikihow

We feel good about the savings Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs) achieve in terms of energy efficiency and cost, and the bright lights that light up our homes. The city of Bengaluru sees high CFL usage. However, once a CFL loses its life, what does one do? Throw it carelessly into dustbin away from one’s eyes, and forget it? What happens to it then?

Here’s what happens. The CFL light joins a pile of garbage, tied inside a plastic cover. Then it goes to either a landfill, or to an auto-segregation waste processing unit. It is crushed there and joins the pile of other waste, normally kept for composting.

What is the issue here? To understand that better, Citizen Matters spoke to a waste worker.

Sharad, a young man in his 20’s has been working as a garbage collector for five years. With his bare hands, he segregates mixed waste in ward no.173. As he stops at every house, he waits calmly with the vehicle for the bin of garbage. As soon as garbage is dropped, he gets busy segregating the waste.

Though segregation at source is mandatory in Bangalore, one continues to see garbage collectors collecting mixed waste from households. This mixed waste, among other things, contains CFLs too.

The unsegregated-mixed waste can turn out to be toxic that can damage the health of the garbage collectors. A study done by Ministry of Environment and Forest, ‘Environmentally Sound Management of Mercury in Fluorescent Lamps’ mentions that mercury flown out of broken CFL lights can be hazardous to environment, and health too, if exposed for long time.

It is always the garbage collectors or the waste pickers who handle waste, and are exposed to it for long. And imagine what they have to go through, for trying to make their living out of your waste!

Cleaning up a broken CFL at household level:

Along with the help of technical team, the task force drafted guidelines on how to clean up the broken CFL light. Here’s how:

(i) Open a window and leave the room (restrict access) for at least 15 minutes. If you have fans, place the fans in the windows and blow the air out of the room. Note: If the room has no windows, open all doors to the room and windows outside the room and use fans to move the air out of the room and to the open windows.

(ii) Remove all materials you can without using a vacuum cleaner:

• Wear disposable rubber gloves, if available (do not use your bare hands)

• Carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with a stiff paper or cardboard

• Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or disposable wet wipe

• Sticky tape (such as duct tape) can be used to pick up small pieces and powder.

(iii) Place all this in a plastic bag and seal it, and then place in a second sealed plastic bag, dispose it properly and wash your hands after disposing of the bags.

(iv) The first time you vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag once done cleaning the area (or empty and wipe the canister) and put the bag and/or vacuum debris, as well as the cleaning materials, in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal.

E-waste doesn’t list CFL

E-waste (Management & Handling) Rules 2011 drafted by KSPCB defines E-waste as electrical and electronic equipment which is dependent on electric current or electromagnetic fields, discarded in whole or in parts. CFLs, being operated using electricity, are supposed to be considered as e-waste, but KSPCB has no mention about CFL light and handling of mercury.

Nalini Shekhar, founder of the Hasiru Dala, an NGO that works on waste collection, says CFL is forgotten like “a stepchild.” Bulk generators usually give their e-waste on contract to the authorised recyclers of KSPCB, but e-waste generated at the individual houses goes to the municipality waste collection system. And this quantity is unknown. A KSPCB official says there is no mechanism to measure the amount of e-waste generated in the city.

According to Nalini, “Currently Bangalore doesn’t have any recyclers for CFL. Many hospitals have a lot of mercury to dispose – they call me for it, but I don’t know whom should I direct them to.”

Thus, just like non-veg waste for which Bangalore doesn’t have a scientific solution, CFL waste is yet another area where the city needs to develop a solution.

Budget schemes boost CFL market

CFLs are popular in the city, as they save energy and money. According 2012-13 budget speech, BESCOM distributed 37 Lakh CFLs in Bangalore under the Belaku scheme floated under the Central government’s scheme Bachat Lamp Yojana (BLY) of 2007. Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah supported continuation of the project. However, BESCOM sources say this policy is not applicable any more, as BESCOM will soon come up with schemes for LED lights.

Running behind cost-effective lights and earning carbon credits, Bangalore forgot to look at the darker side of CFLs that may show its effects in long term. The important content of CFL is mercury which is present in a gaseous and liquid state. It is this, chemically referred as Hg, that maintains the flow of electricity in the bulb.

Task Force recommends tips for safe CFL disposal

Back in 2007-08, when Belaku scheme was launched, it created a lot of uproar in the country for CFL’s hazardous effect on environment and humans. To address the challenges that mercury possessed, within months after the launch of the programme, Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) constituted a task force.

The committee had the chairmanship of R H Khwaja, the then additional secretary of MoEF and presently serving as the Secretary of Mines department and other top representatives of Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) & MoEF; Union Ministries of Power, Health and Family Welfare and Commerce and Industry; and Independent Experts, Director General, Bureau of Energy Efficiency; Director, National Institute of for Occupational Health (NIOH); Director, Industrial Toxicology  Research Centre (ITRC); Chairman, National Poisons Information Centre, AIIMS.

The committee came out with recommendations for proper management and safe disposal system of CFL in May 2008.

Even though used CFLs do not necessarily form hazardous waste as per the Hazardous Waste Management Rules, 2003, the task force recommended to consider separate regulation for CFL, in view of the potential hazards involved in handling mercury from such used lamps, reach of mercury lamps at household level, current way of handling such wastes and level of awareness of citizens.

The Task Force recommended each state set up a proper collection, transportation, recycling and disposal of fused FLs. It gave a detailed account of how to handle CFLs at an individual level to recycling level.

The report highlighted that if the CFL breaks during the transit from household to the waste collection centre, a portion of the mercury vapour gets released into the air and some gets mixed with the waste. The waste gets contaminated which eventually enters the dumping sites. Leachate formed out of such a contaminated waste will eventually enter the surface and join groundwater, and thus enter the ecosystem.

What can liberated mercury do to you?

There are many health impacts of mercury. They differ from person to person, age and the way one gets exposed to it. Here are the effects of mercury:

  • Inhalation of mercury can cause severe respiratory tract damage.
  • Chronic exposure can produce central nervous system disorders.
  • It can also cause skin allergies and accumulate in the body.
  • Repeated skin contact with mercury can cause skin to turn gray in color.
  • Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin.
  • Mercury is also suspected to be hazardous to reproductive system. It may damage the developing foetus.
  • Mercury can decrease fertility among humans.

Keeping in mind the toxicity of the metal mercury, the committee recommended distributing CFL-handling kits to the garbage collectors. A kit is supposed to have gloves, boots and mask.

‘E- waste handling rules are still at nascent stage’

However, E-waste Management and Handling rules 2011 has no proper directions on how to handle CFL carefully, and does not have an authorised CFL recycling unit. Senior Environment officer, Karnataka State Pollution Control Board, S Venkatesh Shekhar says, “There are drawbacks in the rule itself. It doesn’t consider mercury/lead/cadmium as e-waste at all.”

Chapter 5, 13 (1) says that the electrical equipments should not contain the lead, mercury, Cadmium, Hexavalent Chromium, polybrominated biphenyls or polybrominated diphenyl ethers.

But a maximum concentration value of 0.1% by weight in homogeneous materials for lead, mercury, hexavalent chromium, polybrominated biphenyls and polybrominated diphenyl ethers and of 0.01% by weight in homogeneous materials for cadmium is permitted by these rules.

However, a CFL contains 5 milligrams of mercury. As Poonam Bir Kasthuri of Daily Dump says, this is enough to contaminate 6000 gallons of water.

Household e-waste goes to DWCC

The KSPCB official told Citizen Matters that numerous letters have been written to BBMP requesting them to set up an e-waste recycling unit which have fallen on deaf ears.

“We cannot make rules for segregation and handling without having a proper disposal system in place. E-waste recycling plants are very expensive as we don’t have enough capital or efficient technology in our country. We will need to import it,” he says.

BBMP Environmental Engineer, Hemalatha agrees that BBMP doesn’t have any separate e-waste recycling system. At present e-waste goes to the Dry Waste Collection Centres from where KSPCB’s authorised recyclers pick it up.

Hemalatha considers CFL not as a big threat, as she says it contributes only 10 tons per year. “Individual households do not generate much of CFL waste. Therefore it gets collected under dry waste. Earlier CFLs fell under Hazardous waste but now it is shifted to e-waste. However Schedule I that mentions how to handle CFL mandates manufacturers of CFL to take the scrapped CFL lights back to their factory for disposal.” This effectively means there’s a producer responsibility attached to CFL.

One of the leading and trusted electric appliance manufacturing company, Philips doesn’t have any waste recycling unit. They take back CFLs within the warranty period. One year warranty is given to the customer. If the bulbs are found to have any defect they take it back and dispose it. However their disposal system is not clearly defined.

Household CFL waste directly joins municipal solid waste system. Pic: Shree D N

No takers for waste CFL

OSRAM is a competitor of Philips. Raja Sundar, Sales Manager of OSRAM says, “In India it is not mandatory to collect lights back, so we don’t do it.”

Till last year, E-Parisara catered to the CFLs in the city. Annually they receive 10,000 kgs of CFL lights from bulk generators. But the newly drafted E-waste Management and Handling rules- 2011 puts the responsibility of handling CFLs on the manufacturers.

E-Parisara sources explain: “CFLs should be disposed in an environment-friendly manner. We used to take them until 2011 rules came into effect. Mercury is highly poisonous, it impacts health and environment.” At present the CFL lights thrown by individual houses go to the dump yard. “If CFL lights are intact without any damage, they are handed over to the manufacturers. If broken, it enters the landfill.”

28 e-waste recycling units but none for CFL

KSPCB has registered 28 E-waste recycling units in the state. None of the recycling units have CFL recyclers machine. Two recyclers out of the list were ready to take the CFL lights for a fee.

Ashish Pasha from E-Wardd & Co, Bommanahalli, says: “Rs. 20,000 to Rs. 50,000 per ton is charged depending on the size of the CFL. We don’t get anything back from CFL, therefore we apply charges to collect them.” His company does not have any CFLs processor, therefore they are disposed in landfills. He claims, “We need to pay at the landfill to dispose CFLs.”

Sayed Salman works at H M G Eco Care. Along with the other E-waste, he also collects CFL bulbs from various bulk consumers like Mantri Mall, Toyota etc. Like Pasha, he too charges his consumers, depending on the quantity of the CFLs. “We dismantle CFL and take metal and any other recyclable metals from the bulbs and send the rest to the landfill.” His fee is Rs. 400 to Rs. 500 per kg, depending on the type of the light.

No solution in sight

Thus, eventually, CFLs end up at dumping sites only, where garbage collectors work with bare hands and feet for meagre wages with little or no medical benefits or pension.

Hemalatha says, “There should be a jurisdiction drawn by the government for the rules to handle e-waste. It should be made mandatory for all the manufacturers and producers to collect the damaged CFL lights back. At present, BBMP manages solid waste and dry waste. In future we will look into the e- waste too.”

Solid Waste Management Expert Committee member Kalpana Kar says, “At this point of time, SWM itself is at a nascent stage. So the rest will fall in place soon. Now we have court making clear the rules to handle waste. We are saying producers should handle their own waste and it is one of the cornerstones. Manufacturers should be able to provide recycling units that will create a livable ecosystem.”

‘BBMP doesn’t have jurisdiction, KSPCB does’

BBMP Commissioner Lakshmi Narayana supports the concept of ‘polluters pay.’ He believes that E- waste producers can organise themselves and set up a recycling plant. He says, “You can’t  push BBMP for everything. Bulk generators should be made accountable for the waste that they produce. Handling such a waste requires special skills and technology. It requires a lot of investment.”

BBMP is ready to extend support to KSPCB in taking action against manufacturers who fail to recycle their waste. Many manufacturers operate from the outskirts of the city and BBMP has no power over them. He thinks that KSPCB should take action against such violators and drag them to the court.

About Nikita Malusare 109 Articles
Nikita Malusare is a Staff Journalist at Citizen Matters.

5 Comments

  1. Fluorescent lamps come in various shapes and sizes. They all have one thing in common – mercury and phosphor paste. Mercury may be in gas /vapour form. These items (CFLs) using mercury cannot be declared as Toxic since mercury once released becomes toxic not the CFL.

    Our handling of ewaste is in question. Discarded CFLs and Fluorescent lamps (tube lights) are kept aside and collected every month along with other ewaste by Ash Recyclers from our hsg colony. The Lamp component of ewaste is not an earning proposition. Recyclers just collect and dump the same in their Covered yard. They are waiting for a mechanism to crunch the same and capture mercury. Such devices are costly and to be imported.

    Why can’t we make one ourselves ? Start this as a project in colleges and in five yrs you will have a working model.

    To start with get all spilled mercury dropped off at chemical dept of several colleges. How this has to be disposed (sold) and where would the fund collected be dropped is to be worked out. Mechanism is simple. Use 55 gal Drums.
    The amount of mercury vapour emitted by fossil fuel burning is very high compared to that released by CFLs. Yet most of mercury deposited from discarded CFLs goes to ground and ground water. Problem starts there. Mercury vapour returns to land with rain/ snow.
    Interested ? We can start dialogue with colleges – frame work – projects.
    I have been studying the ewaste scene since 2007 when draft rules were being made. Fluorescent lamps and CFLs are collected and stacked by ewaste recyclers, waiting for some one to get a mercury capture machine. Others just break CFLs to extract electronic components. Each CFL has a small circuit Board in the base. Components include Capacitors (Ceramic/ Electrolytic), Diodes, Coil, Ferrite Bead, Resistance, ICs etc. Repair shops and Hobbyists are looking for such bargains.
    AIR CYCLE (US) has working device that crushes Tube lights and captures mercury. Crushed material is then shipped for processing. Mercury is captured on the spot (device is called BULB EATER). Why cant we develop similar units in INDIA ?

  2. Something doesn’t quite add up in your report about the numbers of CFLs sold in Bangalore:

    “Quarterly analysis of CFL lights done by a Market Research Group (who refused to reveal their identity) states that 560 lakhs of CFL lights are sold in Bangalore.”

    560 lakhs of CFLs per quarter/month/year/decade…?

    That is a stupendous sum for any period of time!

    How many households do we have in Bangalore? Let’s do some basic math:
    Population: 8.5 million
    Households: 2.1 million (assumption of 4 people per household)
    CFLs sold: 56 million
    CFLs per house: 26
    Lifetime per CFL: 3,000 or less in reality = 500 days at 6 hours of use per day

    These numbers show that on an average each household:
    – uses approx 26 CFLs
    – replaces the entire set of CFLs every 1.3 years
    – conversely if 26 CFL per house seems excessive, then allowing for less means that ALL households in Bangalore use CFLs.
    – this also means that there are no new CFL (or any other form of lighting) sales as the market is super-saturated with no hope of ever recovering at these unbelievable sales rates…

  3. @Skeptic, So true! Its the same people who will start promoting the LED lights soon and god(and of course the inventors) know what bloody dangerous substance it will have!

  4. This was a problem created by the media and the politicians and unscrupulous businessmen. Who encouraged CFL will glowing copy? Media. Who gave out tax money to subsidize purchases of CFL – KEB/BESCOM/Politicians. Who did not scrutinize the quality of CFLs and TCO – the government along with their ‘business friends’ Even today the quality of CFLs is bad, just up from very poor. And full marks to the businessmen who imported the cheapest, lowest quality rejected CFLs. WE ARE LIKE THIS ONLY!

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