Around 85 per cent of mercury-containing fluorescent tubes and lamps still go to landfill –poisoning our land and water tables – even though it’s illegal and Australia has signed an international convention. Simple changes to the National Construction Code (NCC) are part of the solution.

Generally speaking, the rates of correct disposal, recycling and reuse are dreadful in building activities in Australia.

Big skips, chutes and time constraints make it easy to send it all to landfill while the logistics of collection and associated costs make it harder to do the right thing. Top this off with a lack of oversight and policing, and we are lucky to have moved from the 5 per cent correct disposal rate of a few years ago.

Arguments about avoiding mercury and other toxins in landfill may be strong enough to join the well-intentioned FluoroCycle and even a signature for an international convention (Minamata), but aren’t enough to slow the actual flow to landfill.

Some will point out, quite rightly, that the EPA has rules that make it illegal to dispose of fluorescent tubes and the like, but policing, or the lack of, remains an issue.

But there is a solution to at least part of the problem. And, best of all, it’s been proven that it’s not that hard.

The National Construction Code (NCC) outlines requirements for those involved with building to comply with and, importantly, provide proof of compliance. NCC requirements apply to major refurbishments of buildings as well as new buildings.

In this case, correct disposal of the pre-existing buildings could and should be stipulated. This demolition is an essential part of the building process but is not, for some reason, covered by the code. This is a major gap in the current code that can and should be closed.

The code should require builders to dispose of building material in an appropriate manner and provide proof.

Lighting containing mercury and other toxins would need to be accounted for and sent to registered recyclers to remove the toxins from the waste stream rather than allow it to go into landfill. This is not difficult, nor costly, and is dealt with appropriately under other schemes. There is a precedent and the approach to both the disposal and proof of compliance has been established and proven.

The state-based energy efficiency schemes included the requirement to provide proof of correct disposal many years ago, and the recycling rates for fluorescent lighting have improved from a rate of about 5 per cent to a not-that-much-better rate of about 15 per cent.

To be compliant with the schemes (VEU, ESS, REES and EEIS), a copy of the recycling certificate must be provided. The cost is modest and the logistics of boxing the tubes and storing them for pickup is hardly the most difficult thing to do on a building site. It is a requirement for all, as it should be, and is easily incorporated into business as usual.

A similar requirement within the NCC would, again, improve the rate of recycling, avoiding associated mercury from the lamps ending in landfill.

Australia is a signatory to the Minamata convention but has achieved little through voluntary approaches and education. The mandatory requirement in the schemes tripled the recycling rates and similar requirements in the NCC would again improve the situation.

We accept that mercury in particular is already a prohibited substance from entering landfill and the EPA could use its powers to charge illegal dumpers. Unfortunately, the dumping is usually by large skips where the tubes are smashed and it is almost impossible to identify among other building material. The EPA have few resources to police this regardless, which is why we insist on the requirements being introduced into the energy efficiency schemes.

The glass and metals of the lamps are also able to be reused, with the aluminium of many light shrouds a useful component. The heavy metals in the ballasts and batteries are also unwelcome in landfill and have a small positive value to recyclers.

The experience from the schemes is that if the tubes are being recycled than it is far more likely that these components are also diverted from the skip. Either way, these could be included in the NCC requirements covering disposal easily enough.

This would be an easy change to the construction code and would have an overwhelmingly positive effect on our environment. Europe recycles over 70 per cent of lamps while we in Australia are at 15 per cent. It’s disgraceful to be poisoning our land and water tables in this way.

Bruce Easton is the chief executive officer of Ecovantage.

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  1. Likewise at demolition, the norm is to cut the pipes on RCAC units, letting the HFC & HCFCs escape the atmosphere.

    Also against the law but never enforced.