To LED or not to LED: The Global Opportunity to Remove Toxic Mercury from Lighting

Nyamolo Abagi, CLiC

The Clean Lighting Coalition explains the issues surrounding the disposal of toxic mercury from old lighting fixtures, and what we can do to help.

“Good for public health, the environment, energy saving, carbon saving and the climate crisis… so why is there any resistance?”

Most professionals in the lighting design community reading this are likely already only specifying LED lamps in their designs, without context for global issues surrounding the continued use of so-called legacy technologies. As developed and industrialised markets increase efforts and regulations to limit the manufacture, sale, distribution and installation of mercury-containing fluorescent lamps, under-regulated markets must not become dumping grounds for outdated, environmentally damaging lighting products. In emerging economies, fluorescent lamps are still one of the market leaders, often having a greater market share than the more efficient LEDs. Professionals influence policy makers; this article is a global call to action to stop environmental dumping of legacy, toxic technologies in emerging markets.  

Until a decade ago, fluorescent lights were viewed as the energy-efficient alternative to less-efficient incandescent and halogen lights. Fluorescent lighting however contains mercury, a known neurotoxin that is extremely hazardous to people and the environment. Mercury is on the World Health Organisation’s top 10 most dangerous chemicals to public health. Mercury exposure can affect the nervous, digestive and immune systems, as well as the lungs, kidney, skin and eyes. While the risks associated with mercury in fluorescents were tolerated as a necessary trade-off for the efficiency benefits, this is no longer necessary given the widespread availability of LED alternatives.

Typically, less than 10% of mercury [in fluorescents] is recovered. A 2016 report by the Danish Environment Protection Agency found that Denmark had achieved an overall lamp collection rate of only 36%. Note that Denmark has one of the highest collection rates in the EU. In the United States, recycling rates have been reported at 29% for industry recycled fluorescent lamps and CFLs, and at only 2% for consumers. The case is similar in other wealthy countries that have systems in place for electrical and electronic waste management; recycling is still limited as the small size and weight of lamps makes them easier for consumers to dispose of in general waste. When it comes to emerging markets, there is hardly any infrastructure to deal with any mercury hazardous waste and most of it ends up in the environment.

Availability of Mercury-Free Direct Retrofits

Today, thanks to major advances in LED technology, there are mercury-free LED replacement lamps available to replace all types of fluorescent lamps – different sizes, lengths, ballast types (i.e., magnetic/starter and high frequency electronic), colour temperatures, and regular, high output and ultra-high light output levels. Lamps are also available that are “universal” and can operate on a variety of ballasts and input power configurations. This approach to the design and marketing of the products removes barriers to upgrading to mercury-free LED lamps by enabling the end-users to continue to use the same luminaires, and simply change the lamp.

A Global Ban on Toxic Lighting

This year, global lighting markets have a unique opportunity to say farewell to outdated, inefficient fluorescent technologies and accelerate the transition to an LED future. LED companies and stakeholders can support this transition by endorsing a global campaign to remove exemptions for mercury in lighting under the Minamata Convention on Mercury.

In May 2021, the 36 parties (countries) representing the African region to the Minamata Convention on Mercury, proposed an Amendment to eliminate special exemptions for mercury in general illumination lighting products. The Convention, named after the city of Minamata, Japan, which experienced widespread mercury poisoning after wastewater from a nearby chemical plant was discharged into the sea, was launched in 2013 with the goal to “Make Mercury History” by eliminating the use of mercury in products and processes worldwide. The Convention, now made up of 134 parties, entered into force in 2017 and has been successful in the phase out, phase down and regulation of the use of mercury in a number of products and processes e.g. dental amalgams, mercury mines, and control of emissions to the environment. 

Despite this progress, the Convention includes special exemptions for mercury-based fluorescent lighting products, citing insufficient cost-effective alternatives across global markets. However, the rapid development and increasing accessibility and affordability of mercury-free LED lighting makes the exemption unnecessary.

An Equitable Transition to Clean Lighting

In Europe, policymakers have been actively working to remove inefficient, toxic mercury-containing fluorescent lighting from the market. On 1 September, 2021, the revised lighting regulations under the EU Ecodesign Directive went into force banning retrofit CFL.i and T12 fluorescent lamps. The EU also recently published draft revisions to the regulations on hazardous substances that will ban the sale of virtually all fluorescent lamps in the EU in 12-18 months. However, in contrast to their ambitions at home, the EU also proposed an amendment to the Minamata Convention that would continue to allow the sale and export of banned mercury-containing fluorescent lamps to other parts of the world.

As wealthy countries and developed economies like North America and Europe lead the transition to LEDs, the rest of the world must not be treated as a dumping ground for outdated, mercury-laden fluorescents. In unregulated markets, particularly in emerging economies, fluorescent lamps are still market leaders. Without intervention, a global transition to clean super-efficient LED lighting may take years due to lobbying efforts of fluorescent lamp suppliers.

The Clean Lighting Coalition Leads the Global Lighting Transition

The Clean Lighting Coalition (CLiC) is an independent campaign aiming to leverage expert knowledge and clean lighting stakeholders to transition global markets to safe, cost-effective, and energy-saving LED lighting by removing the exemption for fluorescents in the Minamata Convention. The Coalition brings together LED companies, associations and stakeholders to prove market readiness for this global transition. If the African Lighting Amendment (ALA) is adopted at the upcoming Convention of Parties (COP4), it would lead to a global phase out of toxic, mercury-laden fluorescents by 2025.

LED Companies Signal Environmental Responsibility & Commitment to Equity

By joining CLiC and supporting the phase-out of fluorescents, LED companies can affirm their commitment to environmental protection. Recent national disasters ravaging the globe – heat waves, hurricanes, storms, wildfires, are showing that action on mitigating carbon is not misplaced.  In the lead up to the upcoming 2021 Climate Change Conference (COP26), the latest Energy Transitions report recommends six actions that, if agreed upon and implemented during the 2020s, will make it possible to deliver the Paris agreement and limit global warming to 1.5C. Action #6 is reinvigorating energy and resource efficiency. Eliminating exemptions for fluorescents under the Minamata Convention will remove 232 tonnes of mercury pollution from the environment, both from the lamps themselves and from avoiding burning of coal in power plants. It will also save 3.5 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions from power plants (cumulatively between 2025-2050).

Supporting the ALA is a low-hanging fruit on climate action, a sentiment well echoed by lighting designers Perkins&Will: “To reduce carbon at the earliest stage of the design has the potential for the largest reduction of carbon.”

www.cleanlightingcoalition.org

To support the global transition to clean, energy-efficient LED lighting, sign the CLiC Industry Pledge or reach out to the CLiC Industry Engagement Lead Nyamolo Abagi at nabagi@cleanlightingcoalition.org