Mercury recycling equipment ‘gathering dust’

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Environment group urges govt to ratify anti-mercury pact, open $1.37M facility

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A $1.37-million Department of Energy (DOE) facility in Bagumbayan, Taguig City, for recycling mercury from discarded fluorescent lamps is simply ‘gathering dust,’ the environmental watchdog group EcoWaste Coalition charged.

The DOE purchased the equipment for the LWMF in 2013 from Sweden-based MRT Systems International under the energy department’s Philippine Energy Efficiency Project, with its cost largely covered by a loan from the Asian Development Bank.

The LWMF had undergone pilot testing in mid-2014, but has been sitting idle since then because the government, according to EcoWaste Coalition, has not been able to find an operator for the facility. The DOE, said the watchdog, had said in September 2014 that the LWMF would go into operation in the following December.

In a presentation, Amelia de Guzman of the DOE’s Energy Research Testing and Laboratory Services explained that although some private enterprises expressed interest in the facility, but deemed the purchase price (about P64 million) too high. Other options include finding a contractor to operate the LWMF on behalf of the DOE, or to turn it over to a local government unit in Metro Manila.

Operating costs for the LWMF would be recovered through the Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) program, which would add a surcharge on to the retail price of fluorescent lamps. In her presentation, de Guzman suggested P6.00 per lamp to cover the costs for manufacturers to collect discarded lamps and forward them to the LWMF for processing. The EPR program, however, is still awaiting implementation.

In a letter to Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi on Monday, EcoWaste Coalition urged the DOE to put the idle Lamp Waste Management Facility (LWMF) into operation, as well as issue the department’s concurrence to the government’s signing of the Minamata Convention, an international mercury-reduction agreement.

The Minamata Convention on Mercury was developed under the guidance of the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), and is an international agreement intended to impose tighter controls on the sources and trade of mercury; phase out or reduce the use of mercury in industrial processes, especially small-scale mining; reduce or eliminate the use of mercury in common products such as electric lamps; and establish guidelines for the safe recovery and disposal of mercury waste.

Mercury is a naturally-occurring element that has a variety of applications, but is highly toxic, particularly to babies and children. Among its health impacts, most of which are irreversible, are damage to the central nervous system, thyroid, kidneys, lungs, and immune system; memory loss or language impairment are common effects of mercury poisoning.

The Convention, which according to UNEP is named for a town in Japan where several thousand people were poisoned by mercury-contaminated industrial wastewater, was adopted and signed at a diplomatic conference held in Kumamoto, Japan in October 2013. The Philippines was one of the original signatories, represented by then-Environment Secretary Ramon Paje.

According to UNEP, 128 nations have signed the Convention, but most, including the Philippines, have not yet formally ratified it. To date, it has only been ratified at the national level by 35 countries.

Despite this, the DOE under Paje proceeded with plans to implement mercury recovery from the biggest source of mercury in the country, discarded fluorescent lamps, under the guidance of Article 4 of the Convention, which calls for the phase out by 2020 of lamps commonly used in the Philippines: Compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) equal to or less than 30 watts containing more than 5 mg mercury per bulb; linear fluorescent bulbs or triband lamps less than 60 watts and containing greater than 5 mg mercury; halophosphate lamps less than 40 watts and containing greater than 10 mg mercury; high pressure mercury vapor lamps; mercury in a variety of cold cathode fluorescent lamps (CCFL); and external electrode fluorescent lamps (EEFL).

In the letter to DOE Secretary Cusi, EcoWaste Coalition President Noli Abinales wrote, “We hope that your office is one with us in recognizing the urgent need for the government to operationalize the LWMF and implement a practical system for the safe recycling of lamp waste to minimize mercury pollution due to the improper disposal of fluorescent lamps at the end of their useful life.”

He added, “The prolonged non-operation of the facility can take its toll on the multi-million peso equipment, while spent lamps continue to be arbitrarily disposed of like ordinary trash, contaminating human bodies and the environment with toxic mercury.”

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