What happens when mercury is recycled?

Posted on 21 April 2016.

Most fluorescent lamps contain heavy metals such as mercury. If not removed, these heavy metals will pollute soil, water, and air. At its Massachusetts facility, Veolia North America recycles 99% of the components in these lamps.

Every year, more than 19,500, metric tons of lighting and electronic waste, including fluorescent lamps, is collected, processed and recycled by Veolia North America

Thanks to the precautionary measures introduced by individual states, exposure to mercury and its damaging health effects are rare. But some products are still potentially toxic - including broken energy-saving lamps (fluorescent or neon tubes). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 3% of the mercury contained in these lamps is released into the air when they are transported for disposal. Not to mention, the ones that go to landfill can release their vapors into the soil or the air when they are incinerated.

Highly-secure collection systems

To prevent landfill and incineration related pollution, in 2013 Veolia North America built and manages a state-of-the-art facility in Massachusetts. Based in West Bridgewater, the plant is able to recycle 99% of the total weight of the lamps it receives. The core components – glass, mercury-bearing phosphor powder, and aluminum – are separated dry. The powder is then retorted or distilled to recover the mercury.

250 kg of elemental mercury recycled annually

Veolia provides special mailing containers for small quantities of lamps, light bulbs, fluorescent tubes and ballasts. For more significant volumes, cubic yard boxes and drums are used. Because the recyclable items have been packed in suitable containers, there is no risk of pollution if the lamps break when being transported to the waste processing site.

Every year, nearly 7,000 metric tons of lighting and electronic waste is sorted at this plant, and at least 250 kg of elemental mercury is recovered. Removing toxic materials from the waste stream protects people and the environment from the adverse consequences of these heavy metals.