40 thousand tonnes of PCBs and billions in environmental benefits

Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) are harmful substances that endanger humans and animals even in small quantities. They have therefore been banned since 1986. Despite this, high PCB levels are repeatedly measured in plastic waste from recycling companies. This is partly due to PCB-containing capacitors in light ballasts. Read how high the environmental benefit is if the devices are disposed of correctly.

Polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs for short, were previously used to insulate electrical devices such as capacitors or transformers. However, they were also used in the manufacture of adhesives, printing inks and joint sealants. A significant proportion of these substances ended up in the environment. Some of them can still be detected there today, as PCBs are considered a very stable compound and only degrade very slowly in nature. However, thanks to the ban in 1986, the PCB concentration in the air, soil and water has now fallen significantly. Nevertheless, it still happens time and again that the limit values are significantly exceeded in recycling companies that process small electrical appliances. PCB-containing capacitors are partly to blame for this. They are often found in ballasts (ballasts) for lights.

Did you know?

Ballasts regulate the current in certain light sources during the various operating phases and equalise different voltages. This is particularly important in the switch-on phase when a lot of current is flowing, but also during longer operation when the voltage is lower. Ballasts also regulate the current output during dimming and thus determine the brightness of the lights. A ballast is often noticeable by the quiet humming of floor or ceiling lights.

Ballasts should be recycled

Ballasts come in many different types, sizes and shapes. Not all of them contain a capacitor with PCBs. But if a capacitor is present, there is a high probability that it contains PCBs. To prevent the pollutants from being released into the environment, luminaires with ballasts must be disposed of properly. Consumers are best advised to return them to the retailer. According to the VREG, both retailers and sellers of luminaires are obliged to accept all luminaires and the associated devices free of charge. On the other hand, consumers and retailers can also dispose of their broken appliances free of charge at a nearby SENS collection point.

Old, rusty magnetic ballasts are suspect

In specialised recycling companies, the ballasts are removed from the lights and separated into PCB-suspect and non-PCB-suspect thanks to a trained eye. Old, rusted magnetic ballasts in particular are considered suspect. They often contain PCB-containing capacitors. The somewhat lighter and at the same time brighter or white electrical ballasts, on the other hand, often come from newer luminaires and usually no longer contain PCB-containing capacitors.

A forgotten capacitor containing PCBs exceeds the limit for harmful substances 

As PCBs are considered extremely harmful, it is better to sort out one suspicious device too many than too few. While the capacitors are carefully removed from the ballasts, the employees in the recycling plants wear protective equipment so that they do not endanger themselves. The PCB-containing capacitors are then incinerated as hazardous waste in high-performance furnaces. The proportion of sorted lights and non-suspect ballasts is always checked by a trained person before it is processed further. This is because a single forgotten capacitor containing PCBs is enough to exceed the limit values in the recycling plant concerned and endanger people and the environment.

This is how much PCB recycling contributes to the environment

Since 1990, SENS eRecycling and its partner companies have removed a total of 42 tonnes of PCBs from ballasts and other electronic devices, helping to prevent this amount of pollutants from entering the environment. This corresponds to an environmental benefit of 138,620 billion environmental impact points (EP). However, due to the ban on PCBs, the amount of PCB-containing capacitors and other devices is gradually decreasing. In 2021, SENS eRecycling and its partners still processed around 200 kilograms of PCBs.

1: Sharp increase in 1998 - Electrical appliances with PCB-containing capacitors were also included. As a result, more pollutants were disposed of correctly by leaps and bounds. 2: From 2003, capacitors containing PCBs slowly decrease due to the ban. As a result, the environmental benefit also decreases again.