'Bulb Eater' helps curb toxic waste

The unassuming appearance of Innovative Technology and Environmental Solutions Inc.'s (ITESI's) "Bulb Eater" belies the usefulness of the device in helping recycle light bulbs' toxic innards.

A black metal drum forms a major part of the contraption, on top of which sits a variety of chutes, tubes and containment vessels interconnected with one another.

But once the operator switches it on, the machine whirrs to life. He then inserts a long, household-type fluorescent lamp in one tube and a loud, cracking sound emanates from the drum —the sound of glass breaking into minute pieces, all gobbled up by the machine in just under a second.

The Bulb Eater is a machine meant to break down light bulbs —be it fluorescent or incandescent— into smaller elements.

These bulbs usually contain chemicals such as mercury and phosphorous, which can be harmful when released into the environment as it can contaminate the air.

Feeding these bulbs into the Bulb Eater is a way to safely contain the chemical content of light bulbs and prevent any hazardous effects to humans and the environment.

One ton of mercury per drum

ITESI's unit can process as much as 10,000 bulbs per drum, and could contain as much as 1 ton of mercury.

ITESI president Wenchar Lazier explained that the machine contains two filters: a hepa filter for capturing the mercury content and another filter for containing the phosphorous content of light bulbs.

"Once the light bulbs have been fed into the machine, the mercury content in the shards of glass is reduced to 0.002 milligrams per liter (mg/l)," he said.

In contrast, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) has set an upper limit of 0.2 mg/l for mercury and mercury compounds including waste for it to be hazardous.

Once the mercury has been contained, the company's facility in Marilao, Bulacan packages it in order to be safely shipped to the Air Cycle Corp. facility in the US, where the chemical will be extracted and recycled for other uses.

Only eight of such machines are currently operational in the country, Lazier noted, one of which is being used by the "Hg-free Makati" campaign, a joint project between Bridgebury Realty Corp. and the Makati City government.

Harmful effects of bulb and battery innards

The project, which has been operational for three weeks already, aims to encourage proper disposal of light bulbs and spent batteries within the central business district.

Daniel Zuellig, director of Bridgebury Realty Corp., noted that every light bulb, neon light and fluorescent lamp contains "toxic substances that has to be dealt with properly."

Zuellig cited the examples of fluorescent lamps (containing as much as 50 milligrams of Mercury), compact light bulbs (8 mg) and blood pressure measuring device (60 grams) which are considered common household items that carry a small amount of mercury.

"This amount may pose no danger to our health. However, accumulation of mercury in the air over time can be dangerous," he pointed out.

"Furthermore, when thousands of bulbs and batteries are thrown in our landfills, the amount of toxic substance becomes a threat."

Citing 2008 data from the DENR, Zuellig said the overall mercury emissions in the Philippines are mainly to air (45 percent), land (19 percent) and water (18 percent).

Moreover, consumer products containing mercury account for as much as 22,717 kilograms of mercury output per year, or almost 10 percent of all the annual mercury emissions in the country.

"If these light bulbs and batteries are not disposed properly, they pose serious health risks to the citizens of Makati," Zuellig stressed.

Government initiative to address toxic waste

Proper disposal of electronic and other toxic waste is one of the environmental problems the Makati City government is trying hard to solve right now, according to Lydia Donato, head of the department of environmental services of the Makati City Hall.

Under Republic Act No. 6969, waste from light bulbs and other products containing hazardous materials require proper disposal and waste management at the right treatment facilities.

Donate said that due to logistical and financial problems, the city currently does not have a system to collect and properly dispose of these materials.

"That is why we are looking for partners to collect these light bulbs and other toxic materials," she said.

ITESI's Lazier said that on average, those who want toxic materials processed are charged P40 to P55 per kilogram of the material.

During the initial three-week run of "Hg-free Makati," proponents said they have collected as much as 1.85 tons of hazardous waste already.

In two weeks alone, the Makati City Hall was able to contribute as much as 1,500 bulbs for treatment and disposal, they added.

They also noted how companies responded to the project with much gusto, bringing the thousands of light bulbs they have accumulated and stored over the years to the project's collection bins.

Donato said they are looking into acquiring similar Bulb Eater units to be deployed throughout communities in Makati, but that the cost of the machines could pose a bureaucratic problem.

Lazier said one unit of the Bulb Eater could cost at least P300,000.

Producer take back

To address this problem on a national scale, the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) and the Department of Energy had earlier proposed an "extended producer responsibility" (EPR) program for mercury lamps.

EPR, also known as "producer take back," is a system designed to mandate producers of mercury-containing products to take physical and financial responsibilities for the social and environmental impact of their products.

“True, we have switched from inefficient incandescent bulbs to efficient lighting systems such as compact fluorescent lamps. But it comes with a price – mercury is an integral component of CFLs. And mercury, if not properly disposed of, poses health hazards to humankind and the environment," Energy Undersecretary Loreta Ayson said. — TJD, GMA News