So the last of your traditional light bulbs, the ones that you and your family have been using for the last 120 years, has given up the ghost. So now you have to go out and buy some of those new-fangled low-energy bulbs which the European Union, in its wisdom, says will save the planet from all that nasty CO2 – you know, the stuff which makes the plants in your garden grow.
So off you go and you decide to buy a boxful just to keep you going since you’ve been told that they don’t last all that long. You bring them home, but as you try to insert one into your lamp, darn it, you’ve dropped it and there it is – shattered, glass all over the floor!
So now what do you do?
You see, unlike traditional light bulbs, the low energy ones, or ‘compact fluorescent lamps’ as they are known, contain mercury and mercury, as we are all told, is a poison. Of course, the UK Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) assures us that there really is a very small amount of mercury in each bulb and that while no mercury is good for you, this very small amount in each bulb is unlikely to cause any harm (but what would have happened if you’d dropped the whole boxful?).
On the other hand, just to be on the safe side, the UK’s Health Protection Agency advice is for householders to take quite a lot of precautions in the case of breakages. ‘Evacuate the room immediately’, it instructs us. ‘Make sure the room is well ventilated for 15 minutes and avoid inhaling dust from the broken bulb’. Then, when you feel it is safe enough to creep back in, ‘Wear rubber gloves, sweep up broken material using a dustpan, avoiding stepping on the shards of glass littering the floor and wipe the floor with a damp cloth’. But by no means use a vacuum cleaner to clear it all up as the machine’s sucking action could spread toxic mercury around the house.
Then it adds in large letters ‘DO NOT PLACE IN YOUR NORMAL HOUSEHOLD WASTE BIN’ but place in a sealed bag and take to your local Household Waste Recycling Centre where you can put it in their municipal recycling bin for batteries which also contain mercury. Or you can take it back to the shop which sold it to you, that is if the owner is a member of the Distributor Takeback Scheme. Either way, just what passengers on the bus will think of your clutching that bag of apparently poisonous bits and pieces is debatable. However, all these instructions are not yet printed on the new bulbs’ packaging although they ‘may be’ in the future and how we are supposed to know what to do with them in the meantime — if we don’t have a computer and we don’t read The Quarterly Review — is anyone’s guess.
Under new regulations councils are obliged to recycle these bulbs, but don’t even think that your obliging dustman will take it away for you. These bulbs are now classed as ‘hazardous waste’, potentially putting the safety of thousands of binmen at risk and UNISON, the Union which represents thousands of rubbish collectors across Britain, is not happy. So if your binman won’t take away your recyclable bin which happens to contain a few lemon pips, you can imagine what he’d think of a bin containing life-threatening mercury – even if the Government does tell him that the amount released from one broken bulb isn’t life-threatening at all. Nor should we rate-payers be pleased about the filling up of recyclable bins at the local dump with broken mercury bulbs since disposing of one binful costs about £650 each time, adding to fears of higher council tax bills.
Which just goes to show just how dangerous the European Union is…
First published in the Quarterly Review