Since the advent of electric lighting in the 1800s, humans have produced and discarded billions of lightbulbs and lamps for illumination, communication, and various commercial and industrial processes. Lighting devices comprise numerous electrical components that could have adverse environmental effects when left to decompose in a landfill. Most global governments classify end-of-life lighting equipment as hazardous waste.

The South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries, and the Environment (DFFE) prohibited the disposal of all electrical lamps in landfills effective 23 August 2016.

Regulations Regarding Lighting Waste in South Africa

The management and disposal of end-of-life lighting equipment, including lamps, batteries, and light fittings, falls under the National Environmental Management: Waste Act of 2008. The DFFE published the National Norms and Standards for the Disposal of Waste to Landfill notice under this act in August 2013. This notice details various waste categories, including electronic and electrical lamps, that landfills may no longer accept within specified timeframes from the release of the regulations.

Furthermore, the notice classifies waste into five groups according to its hazard risk, from “Type 0” waste (high-risk and prohibited from landfills) to “Type 4” waste. Some lighting waste may fall into high-risk categories, depending on its chemical composition. Lighting waste that contains high concentrations of mercury, cadmium, copper, and other leachable heavy metals pose environmental risks and should not be allowed to mix with general waste in a landfill.

The Dangers of Sending Lighting Waste to Landfills

Various life cycle impact assessments have shown that lighting products have a substantial environmental impact during their end-of-life stage. Such products typically contain toxic chemical substances that may pollute the air, soil, and groundwater, upsetting natural ecosystems and reducing biodiversity.

Sending waste lighting equipment to landfills often results in soil acidification and degradation. Rainwater percolates through solid waste, collecting heavy metals and chemical pollutants from electrical waste, forming acidic leachate that can contaminate the surrounding soil. Acidic soil can harm plants and micro-organisms, often leading to crop failure. Furthermore, some soil microbes convert mercury to methyl-mercury – a dangerous neurotoxin that can affect humans and animals.

Landfill leachate containing heavy metals may also mix with stormwater and contaminate surface water. This contaminated water can upset aquatic ecosystems by injecting large volumes of minerals into dams, lakes, and rivers, promoting algal blooms and causing eutrophication. Eutrophic water is low in oxygen and cannot support fish and other underwater species, causing dead zones and reducing biodiversity.

Seven Types of Lamps and Their Environmental Effects

The DFFE identified various types of lighting equipment in the National Environmental Management: Waste Act of 2008, some of which may contain hazardous substances.

1. Fluorescent lights and CFLs

Fluorescent lamps are a type of gas discharge lighting. Fluorescent tubes and compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) are lined with phosphorous and contain an inert gas, typically argon, and about 4mg[ ] of mercury. Phosphorous is one the greatest contributors to unhealthy algal bloom when it contaminates water sources, while mercury is a neurotoxin that poses serious health risks for humans and animals. New regulations could soon ban the sale of CFLs in South Africa in favour of more energy-efficient LEDs.

2. Light-emitting diodes (LEDs)

LEDs use electroluminescence to produce light. The most common semiconductors in LEDs are gallium arsenide and aluminium gallium indium phosphide. LED technology is relatively new, and while the long-term environmental effects of indium and gallium are largely unknown, mounting evidence suggests they may have substantial toxicity. LED wiring and other electrical components also contain lead, nickel, and copper[ ] – all leachable metals unsuitable for landfill.

3. High-intensity discharge lamps (HIDs)

HIDs are arc lights that send an electrical discharge between two electrodes and through an ionised gas to produce extremely bright light. These lamps typically contain metal halides, mercury, or sodium vapour. Some HIDs, namely automotive headlamps, use xenon gas, which, while considered inert and relatively stable, may form toxic xenon-oxygen compounds in specific conditions.

4. Lasers

Lasers emit powerful, directional beams of monochromatic light and are prominent in the precision manufacturing, healthcare, optical communication, and display lighting industries. They contain solid-state, gas, semiconductor, or liquid-lasing mediums, which may have harmful environmental effects when sent to a landfill. Metal vapours, such as helium-mercury, neon-copper, and helium-cadmium, found in some gas lasers, may leach heavy metals into the soil and groundwater.

5. Neon signage lighting

Neon lamps are gas-discharge lights that pass electricity through neon gas to produce red light. Many neon signs also contain mercury vapour, xenon, krypton, argon, helium, and phosphorous to produce different colours. The most significant environmental risk of neon lighting waste lies in its lead glass tubing. Lead glass contains up to 40%[ ] lead oxide by weight. Lead is a toxic heavy metal that may leach into the soil, contaminate groundwater, and lead to lead poisoning with improper disposal.

6. Incandescent and halogen light bulbs

While incandescent lamps may not contain mercury, they do comprise various other metals, such as aluminium and copper, that may leach into the soil and groundwater over time. The tungsten filaments that give these bulbs their glow eventually degrade and acidify the soil. While research into tungsten’s effects on human health is ongoing, various studies have concluded that some plants and soil microbes can absorb it from the environment.

7. Ultraviolet lights (UVGI)

UV lamps used for germicidal irradiation (UVGI) emit short-wavelength UV-C rays to kill viruses, bacteria, and other pathogens. These disinfectant lamps contain 5 – 400 mg of mercury,[ ] depending on the light output. Some UV-C lamps use LED technology with various metal components that may pose environmental risks when disposed of in a mixed-waste landfill.

Recycling Lighting Waste

Lighting waste contains many valuable materials that recyclers can reclaim and reuse, such as glass, metal housings, and mercury. Lighting manufacturers must comply with the national Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations of 2021 by developing an EPR scheme that considers recycling options for end-of-life products.

eWASA is a registered Producer Responsibility Organisation for the South African lighting industry. We work with Reclite and eWaste Africa to provide recycling solutions for lamps, fixtures, special lighting, and other electronic waste – contact us for more information.

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