Retrofits – what to do with old fluorescent lights

Is it better to re-use, or recycle?

As Australia replaces millions of outdated fluorescent lights with LED tubes and LED panels, the amount of mercury going into landfill is cause for concern. What you do with your old lights could reduce landfill and improve your PR, or get you into hot water. Re-using is often better than recycling, but it’s not black an white.

As part of an QLD energy efficiency upgrade done in partnership with a solar company, Austep Lighting found a cyclone affected village in Vanuatu and donated over 1,000 working fluorescent tubes to them for use in a school (see www.abc.net.au/news/2016-03-18/australias-largest-hybrid-solar-installation-bundaberg-school/7259054).

But re-using vs recycling is not a simple issue.

Fluorescent lighting contains poisonous mercury and should not be sent to landfill.

Due to their toxicity, Australian standards mandate that compact fluorescents (CFLs) contain no more than 5mg of mercury, and fluorescent tubes no more than 15mg. However given that Australians dump up to 71 million lights a year, that adds up (see http://environmentvictoria.org.au/content/fluorescent-lights). The accumulation of mercury in landfill across Australia is cause for concern, as Mercury converts to the toxic Methyl Mercury, and spreads into the wider environment through air, water, and soil.

Recycling fluorescent lighting diverts mercury from entering the environment, reduces landfill, and also means the glass, aluminium and mercury can be re-used. Some LED lighting companies such as Austep Lighting will organise for your old fluorescent lights to be recycled, but not all lighting companies offer this service.

Re-using is often better than recycling

If you update your lights to LED tubes or LED panels and your old fluorescent lights are still in good condition, consider donating them to someone who could use them. Everyone loves a bargain, and you may be able to find a construction company, a business owner, or a non-profit who works with developing countries who can re-use them. There are even a few 2nd hand store such as certain Lifeline shops who will take them, test them, and re-sell them.

However, this is isn’t always a good idea. Firstly they have to be in good condition, as dumping waste on someone else is not the right thing to do, especially if the tubes pose a safety risk. The other thing to consider is whether they will be recycled – if you send them straight to recycling, you know they won’t end up in landfill. But if you donate them to someone, can you be sure they won’t end up in the bin?

How to recycle fluorescent lighting

In many cases, re-using is better than recycling. However if your fluorescent lights have reached the end of their life and stopped working, they need to be disposed of.

If you only have a small quantity, most council dumps have a special bin for fluorescent recycling. Some lighting stores and places such as Bunnings will also take fluorescent lights for recycling. However, they only accept small quantities. If you have commercial quantities, you need to pay a private recycling company.

To recycle commercial quantities, there are a few companies who can pick up and recycle large numbers of fluorescent lamps. Some of them will even send you pre-paid postage boxes to put the lamps in. The cost is usually $1 – $3 per tube. For a list of recyclers see: www.fluorocycle.org.au/recyclers.php

If you want to reduce your power bills by updating to LED tubes or LED panels, get in touch with a company such as Austep Lighting. If you’re not yet ready for LED (e.g. your lights only run a few hours per day) then contact an LED lighting company and see if they can give you free fluorescent tubes. If you’ve already switched to LED and have old fluorescent tubes sitting around that are still in good condition, consider giving them away, or recycle them.

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