Trail Of Toxin – The Long And Shocking Recycling Route Of ESLs

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.

13 responses to “Trail Of Toxin – The Long And Shocking Recycling Route Of ESLs”

  1. DirkH

    Appalling conditions in the recycling plants. This time i was able to watch the stuff – until the Norderneyers came up again.

    What i find the most appalling is that leprechaun from Greenpeace who spouts his abolitionist ideology – would that idiot please go and drown himself in a puddle, i don’t need an antidemocratic propaganda institution to tell me what i may or may not do. It’s really frightening that these misfits excert such power through lobbying. I normally don’t wish the plague on someone but i’ll make an exception here.

  2. R. de Haan

    Big chance the workers are part of the 1 Euro and 500 Euro temp job army who do the job for a few weeks and get replaced by a fresh crew.
    No claims, no questions asked.

    Gunter Wallraff book “Ganz Unten” (Lowest of the low) comes to mind.

    What’s changed?

  3. dave ward

    Not understanding German I haven’t watched all the video, but the bit at the recycling plant showed me all I need to know! Quite apart from the mercury issue, what about the electronic ballasts? If the bulbs are simply crushed, how do they go about reclaiming the precious metals used in their manufacture?

    If we must have these devices, at the very least we should be using separate ballast and lamp combinations, more common in industrial applications. So long as they aren’t overheated in enclosed fittings, the ballasts should last many times longer than the lamps.

    1. DirkH

      “If the bulbs are simply crushed, how do they go about reclaiming the precious metals used in their manufacture?”

      That’s done by melting the debris and separating the liquid metals. An energy-intensive process – so if a CFL only lasts a year (one lab technician in the video says that if you use a CFL bulb in your toilet, with frequent power cycles, you might exhaust the number of cycles it can do in one year) with frequent switching, it’s hard to see how it can save as much energy during its lifetime as is spent during recycling.

      The reporter tries to get a CO2 balance sheet but to no avail; a guy from the Deutsche Umwelthilfe (DUH – an important eco organisation in Germany) says “I don’t have one, but if you find it, i’d be interested.

  4. R. de Haan

    I say get to the bottom of this and get all recycling data on the table.

    Like most “green dreams” at a close look they turn out to be “green nightmares”.

    This lamp isn’t an exception.

  5. Bernd Felsche

    The recycling looks like theatre. I can’t tell if it’s a tragedy or a comedy.

    Oh course the lamp manufacturers, distributors and retailers support the “schemes”. They have a much higher margin on CFL than they do on incandescents. And the number of “units” is essentially the same because in practice, the life of a CFL is no different, likely shorter if frequently power-cycled.

    The overall environmental burden for a CFL is much higher than for an incandecent, as are the risks from toxic substances incorporated in them.

    BTW: Are CFL also exempt from EU RoHS? (Permitting the use of lead-based solder.) They do form part of the renewable energy plans … at least until 2014 when they too will begin to be phased out. The EU bureaucrats are obviously planning on the invention of a new lighting technology.

    PS: I understand that the electronics ballasts are put in a container and shipped to e.g. China. Where more workers are exposed to toxic solvents and heavy metal vapours to recover (especially) metals. More workers than were exposed during the manufacture. All under a “pliable” occupational health and safety regulations.

    1. DirkH

      I don’t know if the CFL’s circuit boards are recycled in Germany; but here is a page of a German recycling company that details the treatment.

      About Circuit Board debris (Leiterplattenschrott):

      “Die Stäube werden in der Kupferschmelze der Norddeutschen Affinerie eingesetzt. […] Die NE- und Edelmetalle werden in mehrstufigen Hüttenprozessen angereichert und zu Kupferprodukten sowie zu Begleitprodukten aufgearbeitet. Zu den Begleitprodukten gehört der Anodenschlamm, aus dem in einem mehrstufigen Prozess Gold, Silber, Palladium und Platin abgeschieden werden.”

      “The dusts are used in the Copper Melt at the Northern German Affinery. NE- and precious metals are enriched and refined to copper and similar products. Part of the similar products is Anode mud, from which in a multi step process gold, silver, palladium and platinum are extracted. ”

      AFAIK this is not a propaganda lie; under current recycling-friendly regulations the process is profitable, but i don’t know about the energy balance or the green credentials of such a process – as we heard, not even green organisations have any info about it. Personally, i don’t care for how “green” it is, but i do like the idea that we mine our waste for important raw materials.

      And hopefully during this enrichment process people don’t have to stir molten metals without masks 😉

      1. Bernd Felsche

        Thanks for the link, Dirk.

        That recycler is based in Hamburg . The “spy” satellite doesn’t show clear evidence of refractory processes necessary for all the processes described. The processes described indicate significant labour content to separate e.g. components from circuit boards. All for a few grams of metal. Doesn’t seem economically viable at even low-wage-slave rates in Germany.

        As an Engineer, I don’t consider anything to be waste, just a potential resource. The viability of that resource is determined by the available waste processing and the demand for the product. If something is not YET viable, then storage may be an option. Or a less-profitable use of the “waste”.

  6. John

    Quite apart from their toxicity, their questionable economic basis and their appallingly inadequate light, nobody seems to have taken account of the costs of replacing perfectly good light fittings that are unable to accommodate the girth of CFLs. More toxins, more landfill, more manufacturing, more transportation; very green!

  7. dave ward

    The UK Daily Mail newspaper has a half page article today mentioning the health risks for babies and pregnant women. It seems our official guidance considers the mercury risks to be negligible…

    Some quotes:

    “A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs said: ‘The mercury contained in low-energy bulbs does not pose a health risk to anyone immediately exposed, should one be broken.’”

    “Friends of the Earth said the switch to low-energy bulbs would reduce exposure to mercury from coal-fired power stations.”

    Article here:

  8. Anthony

    “Friends of the Earth said the switch to low-energy bulbs would reduce exposure to mercury from coal-fired power stations.”

    Why would this be so? Will coal-fired power stations suddenly shut down operations when using these bulbs becomes mandatory? And how come they ignored the obvious issue of mercury exposure if the bulbs are broken?

  9. David

    This is scarier than I thought – has a copy been sent to or (UK) beloved Department of Energy and Climate Change, and if not, why not..?

  10. Olaf Koenders, Wizard of Oz?

    This issue will likely go the way of asbestos, especially for the workers, where after years of exposure and many deaths, many more years will be spent fighting for their compensation – if they survive long enough to use it on medical bills.

    From Wiki:

    “Immediate chelation therapy is the standard of care for a patient showing symptoms of severe mercury poisoning or the laboratory evidence of a large total mercury load.”

    Maybe that’s the “immunisation” they were talking about. In any case, the whole thing is awash with blind, green feel-goodery that not only costs far more than it’s worth (except unemployment figures – anyone want a job?), but will eventually kill you.

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