Sunday, February 19, 2012

How do you solve a problem like ... mercury in lightbulbs?

I went to meet with a friend, who teaches at a leading and prestigious university in India.  We walked about the campus, and at one point we were up on the second or third floor when I saw a couple of maintenance folks working.  All of a sudden, one of them walked over to the edge of the walkway and dropped to the ground a fluorescent lamp.

It fell on top of a few other objects, large and small, on the ground and promptly shattered to pieces. 

I suppose my friend noticed my shocked body language, which was more involuntary than a conscious one at the instant.  "Yep, this is how it is done here in India" he remarked with what seemed to be a mix of disappointment and cynicism.

"But, this is a leading university" I said.  If this is how it is done at such an enlightened place, then elsewhere?

The Hindu today has an opinion piece on the very topic of mercury and fluorescent lamps. 
Annually, a large amount of this toxic, complex metal is simply dumped into municipal landfills or released into the air from a “green” source — the millions of fluorescent lamps that are at the forefront of efforts to reduce power demand and carbon emissions. 
Yep, casually tossing them away, and the mercury seeps into the air and land, and water, all around us, as the experience at the university campus showed.

The opinion essay also notes that "the lamps made in India have a higher mercury content than those in the developed world."  Ouch!

What is the way out of this?  Any alternative?
In the case of fluorescent lamps, the solution lies in providing a cash incentive to consumers to hand them over to civic or authorised recycling industry workers, with the recovery paid for by the manufacturers as part of the extended producer responsibility principle. 
Sounds good--especially to make sure that the producers are made to take on some of the responsibility.

When I return to the US, I know I will be that much more responsible when tossing away batteries and CFLs.  Join me in this, will you?

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