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Shed some light on recycling LED light bulbs

Led light bulbs recycling 2000

LED lamps (or light bulbs) are now being sold in large quantities and are rapidly replacing gas discharge lamps such as fluorescent lamps.

But they currently represent less than 1% of waste lamps returned for recycling. It will be some years before waste LEDs start to be returned in appreciable quantities. But what impact has this technology shift had on recycling?

In 2013, the Government required LED lamps to be recorded in the same category of waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) as gas discharge lamps. This avoids the risk of an orphan waste gas discharge lamp stream.

As a result, the main WEEE liability on producers of LED lamps is the recycling of the waste fluorescent lamps they are displacing in the market. That is the principle enshrined in the WEEE regulations – that producers in a WEEE category should fund the recycling target applicable for that WEEE category.

The nature of that WEEE recycling obligation depends on whether LEDs are reported as business-to-consumer (B2C) or business- to-business under the WEEE regulations.

Since January 2015, all producers of electrical equipment have been required to apply so called ‘dual use’ when reporting to a compliance scheme. In the case of LED lamps, the BIS guidance is clear that most should be reported as B2C. That means producers of LED lamps will receive a market share obligation based on their share of the prior year ‘put on market’ tonnage and the target set by BIS.

Possible EA enforcement action

In October 2015, following the publication of second quarter WEEE data, the Environment Agency (EA) wrote to all UK lamp producers to remind them of this change and of the importance of correct classification. This was amid concerns that the new reporting requirement was not being applied uniformly. The letter included a threat of possible enforcement action for cases of serious misreporting.

The Q3 data published at the end of November has not demonstrated much improvement, albeit that the EA letter was sent after Q3 had closed. Hopefully there will be a material shift when we see the full year data shortly.

Because they frequently look very similar to other lamps, waste LED lamps may be collected with gas discharge lamps. The EA took the position that LEDs and gas discharge lamps can be co–collected, despite existing requirements that hazardous and non-hazardous waste should be separated.

The sorting of lamp waste by users is often difficult because it is hard to tell them apart. And with such low levels of LEDs currently requiring recycling, any attempt at user sortation would be likely to fail.

Co-collection helps to ensure that waste LEDs are identifiable as a separate stream so that, in the longer term, when the percentage of LEDs in the waste stream rises, we already have a culture of separate collection.

Any co-collections need to comply with duty of care and hazardous waste consignment and reporting requirements. Current Best Available Treatment Recovery and Recycling Techniques (BATRRT) guidance also applies, to minimise breakages of whole lamps during transport and to facilitate their separate recovery. The precautionary principle should also be applied and any lamps which are not clearly identifiable should be assumed to contain mercury.

As the number of LEDs increases in relation to other lamps and recovery technologies change, this position may need to change. Recolight considers that, within the next three to five years, the case for segregation of LED lamps from other lamps will be stronger.

In principle, LEDs can be recycled with other WEEE because they do not contain mercury, and are therefore more similar in nature to other WEEE than to gas discharge lamps. But a cautious approach should be adopted where there is a risk that co-collection may have resulted in some mercury contamination.

Although LED lamps do not contain mercury, they do contain minute quantities of rare earth elements. In the long term, it is to be hoped that technologies will be developed to recover these elements.

The requirement to handle LED lamps as mercury-containing where they are co-collected is enshrined within the CENELEC waste lamp treatment standard. However, with the encouragement of Recolight, an additional provision was included.

This states that LEDs can be treated through a separate process if they are collected as an LED-only load, and verified through the audit trail that confirms no mercury contamination. This allows the standard to be relevant now and also in the future when the level of LED waste lamps is expected to grow.

Nigel Harvey is chief executive of Recolight


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