Only a tiny fraction of the estimated 80 million fluorescent tubes sold in the UK each year are currently recycled. However, several waste management companies, including Biffa, Grundon, BFI and Cleanaway, have recently begun offering recycling collection services to customers with around 50 or more tubes to get rid of. The tubes are taken to a recycling plant in Manchester.
Fluorescent tubes can be landfilled as ordinary household or commercial waste. Despite containing small quantities of mercury, they are not classified as special waste even when disposed of in bulk. Each tube contains around 15mg of mercury. According to the European Lighting Companies Federation, 5,240 kilos of mercury are used in lamps in western Europe each year.
The Government contract is to be let by the Disposal Services Agency (DSA), a Ministry of Defence body. Twenty-five Departments and agencies - throwing away a million tubes a year - said they would participate in the project after being invited to do so by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR).
In an advertisement in the EC Official Journal, the DSA says it is seeking a contractor for the "recycling/safe disposal of spent fluorescent tubes using best available techniques not entailing excessive cost...should it prove commercially viable and environmentally acceptable."
The DETR says it currently costs around £0.40 to recycle each tube, but expects the economics to improve as the industry grows. Britain's sole tube recycler is Integrated Services Waste Management (ISWM), which has a plant in Manchester using technology licensed from a Swedish firm, MRT. Other systems are available in Germany and the USA.
The DSA's wording means that glass and metals from the tubes will not have to be recycled, but recovery of the mercury is likely to be a requirement. Options include crushing the whole lamps before separating the materials, or removing the powder prior to crushing. The powder can be processed by distillation to extract mercury.
ISWM fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority earlier this year over a claim that fluorescent tubes had been reclassified as special waste. The ASA also questioned whether the company's claim to recycle all the materials in tubes was true (ENDS Report 266, p 27 ).
In July, ISWM's Simon Lebor told ENDS that none of the materials from the plant now goes to landfill. He said that the glass cullet is mixed with sand and cement to make construction materials, while some glass recyclers are "looking at" mixing the cullet with glass from bottles.
Mr Lebor added that if it or one of its suppliers won the Government contract it would be a "dramatic" increase in business. The Manchester plant would have to be extended, or possibly a new one opened in southern England.