Mercury spotlight: The toxic lamps that shall not be turned off

The most recent call by the UN to phase out mercury-added products by 2020 is poised to give lawmakers and a handful of powerful companies a headache. This week, Mauro Anastasio looks into the long-standing battle to ban fluorescent lamps in the EU.

Batteries, thermometers, fluorescent lamps, cosmetics and other products containing mercury have their days numbered, the UN Environment Programme announced on Friday.

Over 110 parties, including most EU countries, re-affirmed their commitment to phasing out mercury-added products by 2020. Parties agreed to review and possibly expand the list that contains products to be banned.

The commitment is part of the Minamata Convention, the world’s main initiative to protect human health and the environment from mercury, which was first announced in 2013. It is named after the bay in Japan, where in the mid-20th century mercury-tainted industrial wastewater poisoned thousands of people.

In Europe, the use of mercury is already banned or limited in many products. If viable alternatives exist, electrical products containing mercury should be phased out as agreed under the EU’s Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) directive.

Though mercury-added batteries and thermometers were taken off the market, one particular product has become the subject of a lengthy dispute between a handful of companies, campaigners and EU institutions.

This is the story of fluorescent lamps, which continue to be sold across Europe against the advice of market experts and environmentalists.

Fluorescent tubes are amongst the most popular lighting products on the market

Smoke and mirrors

The first exemptions came about in 2003. The European Commission had just announced restrictions on the sale of several mercury-added products as part of the RoHS directive.

Fluorescent lamps, however, were not part of that list because of the lack of alternatives at the time. Instead, limits on the amount of mercury content in the bulbs were put in place.

Speculations about a possible ban began to circulate towards the end of the 2000s, as LED technology made its first breakthroughs. But in 2011, in line with the industry’s advice that the market was still not ready, the European Commission decided to extend the exemptions with a view to review its decision in 2016.

That’s when it became clear that the lighting industry had different plans, the details of which were recently reported in an investigation by Dutch magazine Follow the Money. What follows is a summary of recent lobbying in Brussels.

Five years went by when in 2016, the year the exemptions were supposed to expire, the work of lawmakers in Brussels was stalled. In several letters signed by lobby group Lighting Europe, major manufacturers had asked the European Commission to keep fluorescent lamps on the market, citing technical and financial concerns. They feared that it would be difficult to rewire all the fluorescent fixtures in Europe and warned that LED linear tubes available at the time were considerably more expensive than fluorescent tubes.

In the meantime, campaigners had begun to call for a ban on mercury-vapour lamps such as CFL and T8 light tubes – some of the most common fluorescent bulb formats on the market. Their demands were mainly based on two arguments:

  • By now, alternatives did exist. Rapid improvements in LED technology had given people reasons to believe the time was right to shift to mercury-free bulbs.
  • Once discarded, mercury-added bulbs had proved difficult to collect for recycling. This means they are likely to end up in landfills, where the chances of mercury leaks poisoning our soil, rivers, and ultimately oceans, are much greater.

The proposal seemed to make sense: not only are LEDs safer to use and dispose of, they also last considerably longer and use much less energy, which helps consumers save money.

But more evidence was needed to counter the opposition shown by the lighting industry.

The European Commission hired the Oeko-Institut, an independent research group, to assess the feasibility of the ban. The researchers submitted a report in 2016 which rejected the claims made by the industry and recommended a ban on fluorescent tubes by 2018. Despite the higher retail price, LEDs tubes would have saved consumers billions of euros due to higher energy efficiency and durability, the report argued.

However, to the dismay of many involved in the discussions, the industry continued to oppose the ban. Lighting Europe argued that the Oeko-Institut report was wrong. In addition, they claimed that a ban would have led to the premature closure of lamp factories across Europe, causing the loss of about 20,000 jobs.

The industry’s strategy worked to the extent that the Oeko-Institut was asked to produce yet another report, this time to assess the socio-economic implications of the ban. The research, once again, suggested the Commission should move forward with the restrictions. While a ban on fluorescent tubes would have indeed anticipated the loss of certain jobs, on the other hand it would have accelerated the rise of new jobs in factories producing mercury-free lamps.

Most recently, experts within the industry have also come forward to defend the ban. Physicist and LED expert Martjin Dekker told Follow the Money that while a switch to LEDs could have been more difficult and costly in the early 2010s, five years on the market was fully ready to embrace the new technology. 

In November this year, in a letter seen by META, LED technology manufacturer Seaborough urged the German government to back for the removal of the exemptions. The company argued that the phase out would further help the LED market grow and pointed out that “there are only a handful of standard fluorescent lamp producers in Europe (Osram, GE and Philips).” The company has also developed electronic solutions to retrofit LED tubes to any ballast designed for T8 fluorescent lamps.

Yet, none of this mattered. At the time of writing, fluorescent tubes are still available on the EU market and policy discussions have once again stalled.

Yet, none of this mattered. At the time of writing, fluorescent tubes are still available on the EU market and policy discussions have once again stalled.

Commission officials and national delegations are expected to meet in the coming months to decide whether to grant another exemption to the proposed restrictions under the RoHS directive. According to an internal memo, the Swedish government is trying to push for a rapid phase-out, arguing that the exemptions go against the spirit of both the Minamata Convention and the RoHS directive.

In the meantime, to complicate things further, the European Commission had planned to add fluorescent tubes to a list of products to be removed from the market as of 2021 – this time as part of the EU’s Ecodesign Directive, which sets minimum manufacturing requirements.

But after lobbying government officials, manufacturers obtained yet another exemption earlier this year. Under the agreed eco-design rules, they will be allowed to sell T8 tubes until 2023 instead of 2021.

Among all the products considered under the eco-design law, fluorescent bulbs were the only ones to be granted an exemption.

Follow the money

Despite slow decision-making, the LED market has continued to grow alongside technology advancement and adaptability. Recent data shows that the value of the LED market was worth over €13bn in 2018 and it’s expected to double by 2024. Interestingly, a key factor driving demand has been the gradual phase out of energy guzzling lighting such as halogen bulbs.  

So, if demand and supply for LEDs are on the rise, why can’t manufacturers let go of their toxic and outdated technology?

In its annual report from 2017, lighting giant Philips cited very bluntly concerns over profit losses in the event of a ban. The company wrote that the transition to LEDs could have an adverse effect on the company’s growth ambition due to “competition” and “lower entry barriers”. For this reason, they are pursuing “a last man standing strategy to continue to extract value from the conventional business.”

They are pursuing “a last man standing strategy to continue to extract value from the conventional business”

Digging deeper into the company’s professed business ambitions may help understand the reasons behind this decision. Philips, a member of Brussels’ lobby group Lighting Europe, is one of the only three companies producing fluorescent tubes in Europe. “For a long time, manufacturers such as Philips and the German company Osram were more or less able to retain the exclusive right to sell fluorescent tubes, because making them requires knowledge in many areas that few manufacturers have,” Dekker, who was previously employed by Philips, told Follow the Money. In short, Philips’ know-how means high marginal profits and very little competition – something they are unlikely to achieve in the expanding LED market.

The company’s 2017 annual report also clearly stated its profits on conventional lamp sales to more than twice of its profits gained from LED sales. This comes as no surprise: Conventional lamps last considerably less than LEDs and must be replaced much more frequently, which means recurring business for manufacturers. 

“There is no economic or technical justification to keep fluorescent tubes on the market. It is worrying that going into 2020 we are still considering exemptions for these products,” said Jean-Pierre Schweitzer, a product policy expert with the European Environmental Bureau (EEB) and the Coolproducts campaign. “It is a clear case of a few companies putting profits over public and environmental health,” he said.

New evidence

The concentration of mercury in our rivers, lakes and oceans has been on the radar of doctors for quite some time. Even small amounts of mercury in the environment can lead to irreversible damage to people, the World Health Organisation (WHO) warned. In young children, mercury has been found to be the cause behind severe learning disabilities.

Humans become exposed to mercury primarily when they eat big predatory fish such as tuna. The bad news for Europeans is that nearly 46,000 out of more than 110,000 surface water bodies in the EU are not meeting safe mercury levels, according to recent data from the European Environment Agency (EEA).

Like most light bulbs, fluorescent tubes and CFLs (in the picture) can break easily, causing the mercury to leak into the environment

Though fossil fuel combustion is the primary source of mercury pollution in Europe, new evidence of improper disposal and concerns over potential leaks have recently turned the attention on mercury-added products. In a newly published report, the Swedish Energy Agency and CLASP, an independent expert group, warned that almost half of Europe’s discarded fluorescent lamps are not collected and recycled, posing a serious risk of contamination.

The findings appear to contradict reports from several governments claiming high recycling rates. Because the collection rate of discarded bulbs is less than 50% across the EU, high recycling rates are only referring to half of the lamps removed from service. In short, they only consider those lamps that are delivered to the correct waste treatment facility, ignoring the fact that the other half ends up in landfills or incinerators, where the risk of contamination is higher.

Removing current exemptions would therefore avoid about 2.6 metric tonnes of mercury that will be put into European light bulbs by 2030, which are at risk of breakage or improper disposal, according to the report.

Researchers also assessed the economic and climate benefits of an earlier phase-out of T8 linear tubes as well as T5 linear tubes and non-ballasted compact fluorescent lamps (CFLni), which unlike T8 tubes were not taken into consideration for restrictions. Due to the greater energy efficiency of LED alternatives, removing the current exemptions in 2021 would save:

  • €12.5 billion on the lighting bills of consumers and businesses across the EU through 2030
  • 40.9 million metric tonnes CO2 from avoided generation electricity for lighting through 2030

“This report calls into question whether continued exemptions for these lamps are justified when cost-effective, mercury-free alternatives based on LED technology are available,” said Mike Scholand, a senior advisor at CLASP and co-author of the study.

Like many around him, Scholand hopes this new evidence will have an impact on policy making. “European institutions should move forward with plans to phase out fluorescent lamps as soon as possible,” he said.

It now remains to be seen how European manufacturers will react to the UN’s renewed commitment to ban mercury-added products under the Minamata Convention.

The EEB has recently written to the European Commission asking to drop all exemptions for mercury-containing light bulbs. The letter is available here.