Author: Nyamolo Abagi, CLiC
Until a decade ago, fluorescent lights were viewed as the energy-efficient alternative to less-efficient incandescent and halogen lights. Fluorescent lighting however contains mercury, a known neurotoxin that is extremely hazardous to people and the environment. Mercury is on the World Health Organization’s top ten most dangerous chemicals to public health. Mercury and its compounds are released into the air, soil and water when the lamps break, and during various stages of their manufacture, use, transportation, recycling and disposal. Mercury exposure can affect the nervous, digestive and immune systems, as well as the lungs, kidney, skin and eyes. In Europe, roughly one-third of all births (1.8 million babies) are born with methylmercury levels above the safe limit.
At their end of life, the majority of fluorescent lamps are discarded into general waste streams where they go on to contaminate landfills, soil, streams, rivers, and ultimately the oceans with mercury. Typically, less than 10% of mercury [in fluorescents] is recovered. In the United States, recycling rates have been reported at 29% for industry recycled fluorescent lamps and CFLs, and at only 2% for consumers.
The case is similar in other wealthy countries that have systems in place for electrical and electronic waste management; recycling is still limited as the small size and weight of lamps makes them easier for consumers to dispose of in general waste. A 2016 report by the Danish Environment Protection Agency found that Denmark had achieved an overall lamp collection rate of only 36%. Note that Denmark has one of the highest collection rates in the EU.
Risks associated with mercury in fluorescents were however tolerated as a necessary trade-off for the efficiency benefits.
Availability of mercury-free direct retrofits
Today, thanks to major advances in LED technology, there are mercury-free LED replacement lamps available to replace all types of fluorescent lamps – different sizes, lengths, ballast types (i.e., magnetic/starter and high frequency electronic), colour temperatures, and regular, high output and ultra-high light output levels. Lamps are also available which are “universal” and can operate on a variety of ballasts and input power configurations. This approach to the design and marketing of the products removes barriers to upgrading to mercury-free LED lamps by enabling the end-users to continue to use the same luminaires, and simply change the lamp.
A review of published industry literature confirms the availability of easy-retrofit LED products designed as direct retrofits into existing fluorescent fixtures, avoiding the need to rewire. Philips/Signify states that there is “No need to change drivers or rewire”, noting that they offer a “plug and play solution that works straight out of the box” (Philips, 2016). OSRAM/LEDvance state that their “SubstiTUBE” product is a “Quick, simple and safe lamp replacement without rewiring.” (LEDvance, 2021) Tungsram reports that in addition to “the 2.5-3x longer life (compared to T8 fluorescent lamps operated on electro-magnetic gear) and lower wattages, Tungsram LED T8 tubes provide lower system loss while existing fixtures remain intact.” (Tungsram, 2021)
“The technological advancements in LED lighting over the past decade have far surpassed even the most advanced mercury-containing fluorescent lamps,” says Shuji Nakamura, Nobel Prize for Physics (2014) and Inventor of the blue light LED.
Market Leaders put Consumers at Risk for the sake of Profit
Over the last few years, retrofit LED light lamps have become significantly more affordable and accessible. In most countries, an LED lamp that replaces a compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) can often be found for the same price or sometimes slightly more expensive. In those situations, the small incremental cost of the LED lamp is quickly recovered through lower electricity bills.
Despite these benefits, sales of fluorescents continue to persist in markets globally due to the lobbying efforts of fluorescent lamp suppliers. Market leader Signify/Philips was recently flagged for continuing to make hundreds of millions on what they describe as a “last man standing strategy”. Their goal is to remain the last producer of highly profitable fluorescent lamps. LEDs are not only more expensive to make, but last 2-3 times longer than fluorescents, meaning consumers have to replace them less often. As such, Signify/Philips actively lobby the European Commission against a market ban of fluorescents to ensure they can continue to milk the golden tail of an outdated, but high margin, product.
Out With the Old, In With the LED
In Europe, policy-makers have been actively working to remove inefficient, toxic mercury-containing fluorescent lighting from the market, albeit years late for, by law, the European Commission should have removed inefficient and toxic fluorescent lamps from sale in 2018, when its own experts confirmed the legal conditions for a market ban were met. The Ecodesign Regulation set a schedule to eliminate integrally-ballasted compact fluorescent (CFLi) and T12 linear fluorescent (LFL) lamps in September 2021, and most T8 LFLs in September 2023. The European Commission is also reviewing exemptions for fluorescent lighting under the Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) Directive, with draft proposals to phase-out all CFLs (including pin-base), all T5 LFLs, the remainder of T8 LFLs and long-life LFLs over the next few years. The RoHS amendments have not yet been finalized, but they send a clear message that policy-makers recognize that LED technology has matured to the point that this transition can happen smoothly.
Global Ban on Toxic Lighting
This year, the world has a unique opportunity to phase out inefficient, outdated fluorescent lighting technologies and accelerate markets to clean, energy-efficient LEDs. LED companies and stakeholders can support this transition by endorsing a global campaign to remove exemptions for mercury in lighting under the Minamata Convention on Mercury.
In May 2021, the 36 parties (countries) to the Minamata Convention on Mercury from Africa, proposed an Amendment to the Convention to eliminate special exemptions for mercury in general illumination lighting products. The Minamata Convention on Mercury, named after the city of Minamata, Japan, which experienced widespread mercury poisoning after wastewater from a nearby chemical plant was discharged into the sea, was launched in 2013 with the goal to “Make Mercury History” by eliminating the use of mercury in products and processes worldwide. The Convention entered into force in 2017 following ratification by 50 countries and as of July 2021, there are 132 parties to the Convention.
Major highlights of the Minamata Convention include a ban on new mercury mines and phase-out of existing ones, the phase out and phase down of mercury use in a number of products and processes, control measures on emissions to air and on releases to land and water, and the regulation of the informal sector of artisanal and small-scale gold mining.
Despite this progress, the Convention includes special exemptions for mercury-based fluorescent lighting products, citing insufficient cost-effective alternatives across global markets. However, the rapid development and increasing accessibility and affordability of mercury-free LED lighting makes the exemption unnecessary.
“My work on blue LEDs enabled innovative bright and energy-saving lighting products to reach markets across the globe,” explains Nakamura. “With the proposed amendment to the Minamata Convention and implementation of national-level regulations to phase-out fluorescent lighting by 2025, countries can accelerate the transition to LED lighting technology to benefit people and the planet.”
The Clean Lighting Coalition Leads the Global Lighting Transition
The Clean Lighting Coalition (CLiC) is an independent campaign aiming to leverage expert knowledge and clean lighting stakeholders to transition global markets to safe, cost-effective, and energy-saving LED lighting by removing the exemption for fluorescents in the Minamata Convention.
The Coalition brings together LED companies, associations and stakeholders to prove market readiness for this global transition. The LED industry must signal its readiness and ability to manufacture and distribute enough high-quality products to meet the accelerated demand. If the African Lighting Amendment is adopted at the upcoming Convention of Parties (COP4), it would lead to a global phase out of toxic, mercury-laden fluorescents by 2025.
By supporting the amendment to transition the global markets to LED light lamps, LED industries will signal their readiness and ability to manufacture and distribute LEDs to meet the accelerated demand and grow the market share of LED lighting by penetrating markets currently dominated by fluorescents. The market size of LEDs was valued at $50.9 billion USD in 2020 and is estimated to grow by 12% in 2021 under a business-as-usual scenario.
LED Companies Signal Environmental Responsibility & Commitment to Equity
By joining CLiC and supporting the phase-out of fluorescents, LED companies will affirm their commitment to environmental protection. Eliminating exemptions for fluorescents under the Minamata Convention will remove 232 tonnes of mercury pollution from the environment, both from the lamps themselves and from avoiding burning of coal in power plants. It will also save 3.5 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions from power plants (cumulatively between 2025-2050).
“The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Solid-State Lighting (SSL) Program was initiated over two decades ago on the premise that energy savings and quality lighting can be achieved together. Over that time period, LED lighting has made significant improvements and today, LEDs surpass fluorescent lighting in performance and efficiency at reasonable cost. It is now time to phase out mercury-containing fluorescent lamps to capture energy savings and reduce environmental pollution.” – James Brodrick, PhD, Program Manager, US DOE SSL Program 2000-2018
Take Real Action on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)
As wealthy countries and developed economies like North America and Europe lead the transition to LEDs, the rest of the world must not be treated as a dumping ground for outdated, mercury-laden fluorescents. In unregulated markets, particularly in emerging economies, fluorescent lamps are still the market leaders. Without intervention, a global transition to clean super-efficient LED lighting may take years due to lobbying efforts of fluorescent lamp suppliers. CLiC is asking LED companies to go on the record and pledge commitment to equity.
 T8 is industry nomenclature for describing a certain type of fluorescent lamp. The T stands for tubular and the 8 refers to the number of eights of an inch diameter of the tube. Thus a T8 lamp is one inch in diameter.