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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Recycling Manifesto : How to Recycle 100% of CFLs

Why the recycling of all used CFLs is necessary

The banning of domestic incandescent light bulbs has resulted in more energy efficient compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) being used.

This is great in terms of reducing energy use, carbon emissions and bills but has also created a new stream of waste, which needs to be responsibly and reliably recycled. 

Each CFL contains between 1mg and 5mg of mercury. Mercury is a toxic substance and always needs to be disposed of safely.

At present, no waste system capable of recycling 100% of CFLs, or other hazardous household waste, has been created anywhere in the world and this situation needs to change before millions of used CFLs start entering the waste system at the end of their 4 – 6 year useful lives.

Learning from Success

During the development of this Recycling Manifesto, Ban The Bulb has researched the countries that have been most successful at recycling domestic compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and explored how Sweden manages to recycle 75% of domestic CFLs and 90% of commercial fluorescent lighting.

Sweden possesses a relatively small and highly organised population and has developed a single, centrally organised recycling system, administered by El-Kretsen, which reaches into every local community via approximately 1000 standardised collection sites.

The Netherlands also uses 1 organisation to organise its recycling (, Ireland uses 2 organisations and France uses 1 system for CFLs and a total of 4 systems for all electrical waste (referred to as WEEE or e-waste in the industry).

By contrast, the UK uses approximately 40 different recycling schemes to recycle CFLs, and other electrical “WEEE” waste.

The UK’s hugely fragmented and bureaucratic approach to recycling imposes heavy organisational and financial costs and is a massive barrier to cost effective, efficient and simple recycling.

Recommendation 1

Unify and standardise the system for recycling CFLs.

The UK, and EU, must do more to ensure that it is cheap, simple and easy to recycle all CFLs, e-waste and hazardous domestic waste. 

Governments need to show leadership by simplifying and standardising the processes associated with recycling CFLs, other e-waste, batteries and cables under WEEE and similar legislation.

National recycling schemes should be placed under the control of umbrella bodies, which make the collection and recycling of 100% of waste their primary goals. 
Recommendation 2

Align the interests of CFL collectors and recyclers.

The interests of collectors and recyclers need to become better aligned.

Under the current WEEE laws, waste collectors are able charge ransom prices to the manufacturers that are forced to comply with the legislation, which requires them to fund a proportion of recycling exactly proportionate to their sales.

In the UK, DEFRA’s Red Tape Challenge could play a crucially important role in this process by fairly balancing the needs of different markets participants and ensuring positive outcomes, which work in the interests of society and the environment.

We need a new system, which is more focused on achieving and rewarding high levels of CFL collection AND recycling.

Recommendation 3

Create a closed loop for mercury supply and demand.

A closed loop system would help to ensure that mercury is always recycled and re-used, rather than thrown away or replaced.

The efficiency of the system would be further assisted if manufacturers were given access to recycled mercury and other materials, via open and transparent markets, and thereby incentivised to support waste reduction, collection and recycling.

Recommendation 4

Ban the use of new mercury.

A large amount of toxic mercury waste already exists, but the mercury contained by old televisions and other used household products is not always recycled.

Although the export of mercury from the EU is due to be banned, the Ban The Bulb campaign feels that the use of new (virgin) mercury within the EU also needs to be banned.

This would create a self-sustaining and cheap market for used mercury and reduce the amount of toxic waste being dumped in landfill.

Recommendation 5

Encourage investment with long-term contracts.

The Swedes issue 3 + 2 years recycling contracts (i.e. 5 years in duration), which encourage investment in simple, mechanical crushers and more complex and costly separators.

By comparison, recycling contracts in the UK tend to be renewed on an annual basis and this makes it less attractive to invest in highly quality recycling equipment and the processes needed to extract re-useable components and contaminants.

If we want recycling to improve we need to encourage investment and to extend the contracts offered in return for manufacturers, collectors and recyclers meeting tough performance criteria.

Recommendation 6

Develop collection boxes that separate and store different types of e-waste.

Most households will only ever generate small quantities of used CFLs or e-waste over months or even years.

It is never going to be economic to collect such small quantities of low-value waste, so new collections systems, in terms of container standards and collection regimes, are going to be required.

Mixing up different forms of waste increases handling costs and in the case of CFLs increases the risk of breakages and the accidental contamination of non-hazardous waste with hazardous waste.

One solution might be to encourage individual householders to collect several types of small e-waste at the same time using a compact, stackable box with different compartments.

In the Netherlands, a product called Jekko has come the closest to solving this set of problems.

Recommendation 7

Keep CFLs clean, dry and safe until collection.

CFLs need to be kept dry in order to prevent fluorescent powders sticking, mercury leaching away and/or contaminating other materials.

This might sound obvious and simple, but traditional systems are not very good at guaranteeing waste will stay clean, dry or safe from breakages and existing standards and norms cannot simply be applied to CFLs.

From the outset, the next generation of collection boxes should factor in keeping waste clean, dry and safe from the home through to recycling.

Recommendation 8

Team up with others.

Many people and organisations are keen to improve the quality of the users’ recycling experience and to increase the rates of recycling in several neglected categories of waste.

Groups supporting the recycling of CFLs, other small WEEE, batteries, cables, printer cartridges and chemicals need to explore ways of working together and tackling shared problems.

Recommendation 9

Innovate and Compete.

The answers to some of the problems facing CFL recycling cannot be guessed and innovative trials and approaches will be necessary if solutions are to be found.

As guiding principles those designing new solutions should aim 

(i) to create open and transparent relationships between all parties and 

(ii) to make decisions based on whether or not they will increase and/or improve recycling.

Examples of solutions worth exploring include creating currencies or certificates which only reward successful collection AND recycling.

At the moment valuable certificates are only created when waste is collected and not when it is recycled.

Both steps are crucial and need to be rewarded.

Field trials also need to incorporate the concerns of all stakeholders and to do so in ways that reward success.

Competitions could be used to identify practical solutions, such as the Jekko, and to award national and/or long-term contracts.

Recommendation 10

Standardise and Scale Up Success.

Best practice needs be proactively shared and rapidly scaled up.

In particular, the UK needs to examine the factors that have allowed Sweden and the Netherlands to succeed, and to be open to supporting new ideas and approaches.

This may mean creating supportive legislation, unlocking investment and adopting new working practices.

It is likely that those interested in the defending the dysfunctional status quo will also need to be tackled, made to compete for their existing roles and forced to dramatically improve their performance.


The recycling of CFLs, e-waste and other hazardous waste in the UK is a mess and needs to be sorted out.

By default, too much waste is being disposed of irresponsibly, via landfill, and it remains much too difficult for consumers to do the right thing via the dysfunctional and over-complicated recycling system, which they are currently expected to use.

At every step, care needs to be taken to ensure that the needs of manufacturers, retailers, consumers, collectors and recyclers are considered but that no one is allowed to cheat, ransom or otherwise undermine the market for recycled waste.

This will require the creation of clear, simple and fair rules that are focused on the goal of recycling 100% of waste and backed up by efficient and effective enforcement by the relevant government agencies. 

At present large amounts of e-waste are being sent to normal landfill sites in the UK, via general rubbish, or even to Africa for re-use and India for unsafe disposal.

Renewed efforts need to go into ensuring that all CFLs, other e-waste and hazardous waste can always be safely and efficiently disposed of properly in the UK and elsewhere. 

This means making it easier for well-intentioned consumers to do the right thing and harder for bad practice to go unchallenged.

The present system has evolved due to a lack of focus on the goal of recycling 100% of e-waste, such as CFLs, and a tendency to build ever more complicated and bureaucratic systems.

The Swedes and the Dutch have made their life a lot easier by showing great leadership and creating unified and standardised systems which are much more focused on achieving their primary goals and actually working under real-world conditions.

Looking the other way and pretending that e-waste and others forms of hazardous waste are not being disposed of irresponsibly is no longer an acceptable solution for policy makers.

We still have time to build better systems for the recycling of CFLs, as many will not need to be recycled before 2014, but we need to get a move on and to make good use of the time we still have.

At the same time, we might as well develop an integrated system for handling all of the other e-waste and hazardous waste, which can be similarly difficult to collect and dispose of properly.

Useful links:

Battery Recycling UK