In my last post, I wrote about some German politicians who have woken up to the fact that energy saving lights are highly toxic, and dangerous to use in households.They now want to have them banned, and bring back the old incandescent bulb Edison brought us 130 years ago. I also posted a link to a shocking German documentary that exposes the reckless recycling of the mercury-laden bulbs.
Parts 2 and 3 of the documentary show the horrific handling of the used ESLs, which I describe here in English.
Part 1/3: The North Sea island of Nordeney changes over to energy saving lights in a project with Philips
The 2009 report on NDR German television investigated the energy saving lamps (ESL) in detail and found it is probably far worse for the environment than any one could have imagined. In Part 1, the North Sea island of Nordeney wants to eliminate all incandescent light bulbs, and thus become a model for the world. So Norderney teams up with ESL manufacturer Philips to replace all normal lights with ESLs.
Citizens expressed their concerns about the toxic mercury in the lamps. But the Philips spokespersons downplay the risk and tell lies about the risk. The TV documentary asks the question: “Are ESLs really that good for the environment?” The answer to this question becomes shocking when all factors are examined.
Part 2: The ESLs are transported and reloaded over hundreds of kilometers, leaving a trail of toxic mercury and broken lamps behind.
As Part 2 shows, many of the residents of Nordeney are worried about the toxic mercury, and want to know how the ESLs are to be safely transported off the island once used. Is it possible to put them in containers without breaking and releasing mercury? In a town meeting with citizens, a Philips sales manager simply answers that it is not the responsibility of the manufacturer, but rather that of the recycling companies. Here the Philips spokesmen underplays the hazards of their ESL’s.
The citizens want to know if recycling companies properly handle the ESLs? To answer the question, the NDR reporter follows the entire recycling route of the ESL. What he finds is horrific.
Taking the old lamps back to the shop
Part 2 of the documentary shows that shops gladly take back the ESLs once used, and carefully collect them for recycling. When you buy a new lamp, then just bring back the old one. The shops collect the old ESLs and a disposal company later picks them up and takes them to a disposal centre. But as you will see, the route to recycling is one that is riddled with released mercury and broken lamps. Work conditions for workers are horrendous.
Toxic work conditions
Used ESLs first are first collected at the Müllumschlagstation (Waste Gathering Station) on Norderney. As the NDR reporter shows, the Müllumschlaganlage Norderney is poorly equipped to handle the old ESLs. The company doesn’t have the proper containers for storing and transporting them. As a result many of the ESLs break and release their toxic mercury into the environment. Here a worker handling the broken ESLs is asked if he was afraid of the mercury. He replied,
“No, we wear gloves – and we have been immunised.”
Immunized against mercury? The disposal company spokeswoman then explains that the correct containers for holding the old ESLs are actually wire mesh boxes, but they don’t have any in Norderney, and then adds that ESL breakage is rare anyway and so it isn’t a real problem. But as the reporter shows, there are broken ESLs everywhere.
Once the lamps are sorted, trucks pick them up and transport them off from the island. Where do they go next?
Unloading and reloading – broken lamps everywhere
The reporter follows the truck on its trip from Norderney to the MKW disposal centre on the German mainland located in Grossefehn, just east of Emden. But here the facility is also not a recycling centre. It is just another logistics collection centre where the “improper” containers are unloaded and the lamps reloaded again (more lamps break). No recycling is done here. Here, the broken ESLs are sorted out by workers who only wear gloves and no masks. One worker is picking broken pieces and putting them in a paper box and brings them to a container – an open wire mesh container. When a wire mesh container is full, it is picked up by a truck and the journey continues.
More unloading and reloading – more broken lamps
From Grossefehn the truck transports the ESLs to a 3rd location where there are many more wire mesh containers filled with old broken ESLs exposed to the air. At this third location, ESLs are also only collected, and not recycled, and then sent to yet a 4th location. But where? The reporter then follows the ESLs, now held in the “correct” wire mesh containers, all the way to Bad Oeynhausen, several hundred km away. But at this location, the reporter is not allowed to film.
The reporter does, however, find out that the next location for the old lamps is the DELA recycling company near the city of Essen. By now the old lamps have travelled more than 600 kilometres since leaving Norderney. Many do not even survive the trip. And the energy the lights had saved by consuming less electricity is certainly used up by the long and complicated logistics chain.
At DELA, the manager spoke openly about the recycling process, proud to be a part of protecting the environment. On the subject of breaking ESLs, he assured that it happened very rarely. Says manager DELA Ralf Kölzer:
Broken glass is immediately sorted out and there is practically no breakage in the wire mesh containers. The amount of breakage is negligible.”
But the reporter then shows a truck being unloaded. As the truck is opened, many small shards of mercury contaminated glass fall to the ground. No problem though. Two workers simply sweep up the broken contaminated glass and throw it away.
Part 3: Horrific work conditions at the recycling plant
Finally at DELA, the 5th location, recycling begins – first the ESLs are unloaded from the mesh containers and thrown into a crusher by hand. The workers here are not even wearing any type of masks. “No problem”, says manager Kölzer, “The mercury vapours are simply removed by the overhead vacuum hood”. The crushed material is then separated according to size and type. The crushed and sorted material is then packed into so called Big Bags (you can see a cloud of dust blowing out from the bag when a worker moves it).
Recycling the ESLs consume lots of energy
The ESLs from Norderney are also crushed in Bad Oeynhausen and then delivered to DELA in big bags. There the crushed material is separated and goes through a complex process that requires a lot of energy. How much energy? No one can answer that question. EU bureaucrats say that the energy savings are worth it, even with the mercury problem. Environmental groups like Greenpeace are also active supporters of the ESLs. But Greenpeace in Hamburg refused an interview with NDR.
I also tried to get a comment from Greenpeace, but got nothing.
Nowhere is it possible to find a complete life cycle study on CO2 and energy that compares ESLs and standard lights. More important, what about the mercury in the environment? What about the health of the workers?
The NDR reporter also researched to see if the ESL lights really do last longer than the normal lights and use less energy. The results show that they do not.