The rapid change from fluorescent to LED in the UK market is yet to impact the recycling sector. Work is underway to address the challenges that LED recycling will bring. Fluorescent recycling is frequently regarded as “difficult” because of the need to manage the risk of mercury release. But that is a relatively simple process compared to the challenges of LED recycling.
High recovery rates for fluorescent lamps
Fluorescent lamps are very similar in composition and construction, regardless of manufacturer. The number of materials used is relatively small and recycling yields 80-90% of materials.
Recovery rates more than 90% are almost unheard of in other sectors of the electrical recycling industry, where rates of 50-70% are more common.
Proportion of waste LED lamps remain low
In the UK, there now are probably more LED lamps sold than traditional lamps. But given their relatively recent introduction and longer life, they have not yet reached the waste stream in large quantities. Of the 6200 tonnes of waste lamps collected and recycled in the UK in 2016, around 1% were LED. The other 99% were gas discharge lamps.
Given that there is still much work to do on developing recycling solutions for LED lamps the low percentage in the waste stream is no bad thing.
What happens to waste LED lamps now
Research has shown that most consumers (and indeed many businesses) cannot reliably differentiate between LED and traditional technologies. The use of opaque glass or plastic on the outside of many lamps further complicates matters. If there was a move to require businesses and consumers to put LED lamps and fluorescent lamps into different containers, there would inevitably be significant cross-contamination.
When the containers arrive at the recycler, the LED and fluorescent lamps are then separated. They do not usually go through the same process. The LED lamps are recycled at general WEEE processing plants, in which they are shredded along with other small mixed WEEE.
Challenge of recycling LEDs
The flexibility and adaptability of LED technologies has allowed manufacturers to produce LED lamps using many different construction techniques, materials, and designs. This huge variability, whilst wonderful for the designer and the customer, creates real challenges for the recycler.
The broad range of materials used in LED production can include glass, metals, plastics, ceramics, foams, glues, and others. This means that high recovery rates associated with fluorescent technologies are going to be hard to achieve.
Working with EucoLight to address the LED recycling challenge
Recolight is a founder member of EucoLight, the European Association for lighting WEEE compliance schemes. EucoLight are currently running a number of projects to seek solutions for this challenge. EucoLight brings together Europe’s leading WEEE schemes specialised in the lighting sector, and so is ideally placed to tackle this.