Although regulations transposing the EU definition of "hazardous waste" into English law are not expected until later this year, the definition already applies in relation to the landfilling of wastes. This is because the landfill regulations already refer directly to the EU definition of hazardous waste.
Consequently, the ban on co-disposal of hazardous and non-hazardous wastes, which came into force last July, has meant that fluorescent tubes must be deposited in hazardous landfills.
The Environment Agency's view is that where a fluorescent tube is mixed with general commercial waste there are two distinct waste streams - hazardous and non-hazardous - which must be separated prior to landfill.
Moreover, Agency guidance on the mixing of wastes says that "the deliberate mixing of hazardous with non-hazardous waste in order to dispose of the hazardous waste as non-hazardous waste is not acceptable."
In theory, this means that all old fluorescent tubes that are replaced in offices should now be collected separately and either recycled or sent to a hazardous landfill. In reality, most tubes are still being mixed up with general commercial waste.
Lamp recycling started in the mid-1990s but accounts for a small proportion of the waste stream. According to SustainaLite, the body established by the Lighting Industry Federation to accredit lighting recyclers, just 7% of the 100 million lighting tubes sold each year were recycled in 2003.
Unlike some other electrical equipment, such as fridges, lamps are recycled at dedicated facilities. These remove the mercury and phosphor coating before selling the crushed glass and aluminium scrap.
A second legislative driver for recycling is the EU Directive on waste electrical and electronic equipment, which will require the recycling of 80% by weight of all separately collected gas discharge lamps by 31 December 2006. It also requires recyclers to remove the mercury.
From August 2005 the costs of collecting, treating, recycling and disposing of lighting tubes and many other kinds of WEEE must be borne by product manufacturers and importers.
In addition, the implementation of the hazardous waste Directive later this year will require any commercial premises generating more than 200kg, or about 1,000 tubes per year, to register with the Agency as hazardous waste producers.
SustainaLite is planning to launch two compliance schemes - one for gas discharge lamps and one for light fittings or "luminaires" - to take on the obligations of lighting companies under the WEEE Directive. Unlike the existing organisation, recyclers would be excluded and the schemes would be open to producers only.
According to chief executive Ernest Magog, lighting producers and retailers are negotiating on the level of a "visible fee", as allowed by the Directive, which would be placed on products to cover the costs of recycling. But lighting contractors and distributors are concerned that they will not be able to pass the cost down to end users.
While most lighting companies are expected to join the SustainaLite schemes, some businesses that will have an obligation for lighting as part of a wider WEEE obligation, such as large retailers, may join other schemes, such as Valpak, Transform and Revive.
In the meantime, most lighting wholesalers, distributors and contractors appear confused about their current waste management responsibilities and the implications of the WEEE Directive. Those that have kept abreast of policy developments still have many questions.
Speaking at a recent conference organised by Lighting Equipment News, Dave Tilley of electrical wholesaler GFE asked where all the fluorescent tubes replaced by contractors will be stored before they are sent to recyclers. "I've heard CA [civic amenity] sites will be the place to go but I've seen no evidence of that - for me that's an issue," he warned.
Other speakers asked if councils would allow tubes from commercial premises to be taken to such sites.
As a seller of own-brand products, GFE would be classified as a "producer" under the incoming regime and pick up an obligation, in proportion to its market share, to pay for the recycling of waste lighting equipment. To avoid such an obligation, its own brands will be discontinued in March.
As things stand, retailer take-back of discarded lighting equipment looks unlikely. Major lighting retailer B&Q has no take-back plans for any of the electrical equipment it sells.
In Scotland, where the EU definition of hazardous waste has been applied since last July and fluorescent tubes are thus classified as hazardous waste, electrical retailers have been told they do not qualify for an exemption from licensing for any tubes they wish to take back from commercial premises because exemptions cannot be granted for hazardous waste. If they want to take back tubes they therefore need a hazardous waste management licence.
"Unless there's a change in the way the legislation is written or interpreted, I can't see retailer take-back happening," said Martin Fortune of recycler Envirolite.
The key issue for recyclers, said Mr Fortune, is which part of the product chain will bear the cost of transporting tubes from the end-user to the initial bulking-up point - a cost that would not be included in the proposed visible fee.
Currently recyclers are paid directly by the end-user when tubes are discarded, but if a visible fee is introduced recyclers will be paid by Envirolite. As the fee would be paid back up the supply chain from end-user to retailer, distributor and then producer, end-users might feel they were being asked to pay twice if recyclers tried to charge for taking tubes away.
However, lamp recyclers do not appear downcast. Mr Fortune claimed that if the visible fee were set at the currently discussed level of 35p per lamp, the cost of recycling would be lower than sending lamps to a hazardous landfill. Another lamp reprocessor, Mercury Recycling, said it plans to expand its operations and recycle other types of WEEE.
Unlike the situation with fridges three years ago, recycling capacity is not an issue. "Recyclers can process existing volumes and quite a bit to spare," said Mr Fortune. "If we have to ramp it up we'd only need a few months lead time."