India consumes a few hundred million energy-efficient compact fluorescent lamps every year and the volumes are growing. This is welcome news not just for the lighting industry, which places the number of pieces manufactured in 2010 at around 304 million, but also for climate change mitigation efforts. Yet this also presents a waste management challenge. The problem with fluorescent lamps is that they contain small amounts of mercury. Unfortunately, India has not evolved a good system to recover this hazardous heavy metal from end-of-life lamps. Moreover, the trend is towards dosing CFLs made in India with levels of mercury that exceed the international norm, apparently to improve their performance. A recent study by Toxics Link, a non-governmental organisation, indicates that mercury levels in domestic CFLs may even be four to six times the norm in developed countries. The issue was acknowledged by the Central Pollution Control Board three years ago. Since disused CFL and mercury-laden lamps, and fluorescent tubes, are generally dumped in municipal waste or sold to unorganised recyclers, there is harmful release of mercury into the soil, water, and air. This is happening in spite of the forward-looking “Guidelines for Environmentally Sound Mercury Management in the Fluorescent Lamp Sector” the Board issued in 2008.
Mercury can cause serious, well-recognised health effects when there is chronic exposure. Permanent damage to skin, eyes, and respiratory tract and other symptoms are caused upon skin contact, inhalation of vapour, or ingestion. The onus is on the State Pollution Control Boards, which are responsible for the handling and management of hazardous waste, to ensure that environmental exposure to this toxic chemical is eliminated. The imperative is to reduce the amount of mercury that goes into CFLs through standards and regulatory controls and enforce the principle of extended producer responsibility for the collection and disposal of waste. This cannot be achieved without the active involvement of municipal authorities, manufacturers, and the trade. The way forward would be to provide a financial incentive to consumers for turning in old mercury lamps of all types, particularly conventional fluorescent tube lights and CFLs, and to ensure their scientific disposal through a network of authorised recyclers. Such a system can succeed because there is greater awareness of negative externalities among consumers today. For instance, shoppers are willing to pay extra for plastic bags as required by the new Environment Ministry rules; many use their own bags. In the case of used light bulbs, consumers stand to gain if the rewards-based system is introduced. Recycling mercury lamps should be an environmental priority.