Off to the recycling centre: when mercury-containing lamps have broken

Since August 2023, it has been definitive: fluorescent lamps may no longer be manufactured or imported in Switzerland. They contain mercury - a heavy metal that is harmful to people and the environment. But don't worry: old lamps don't have to be replaced immediately. You can wait until they give up the ghost on their own. But then they should definitely be recycled. We explain why here.

The light bulb was banned in 2009. The reason: they use far too much electricity. Now fluorescent lamps and energy-saving lamps are suffering the same fate. Not just because of their efficiency. The main reason is that they contain mercury, which can cause great harm to people and nature if vapours are released into the environment when the bulbs break or are damaged. Switzerland has therefore banned all mercury-containing light bulbs as of 25 August 2023, in line with the EU. There are now plenty of alternatives: modern LED technology has long since conquered the lighting market. Light-emitting diodes are considered to be twice as efficient as energy-saving light bulbs and therefore the lighting technology of the future.

100 million units for recycling

Despite import and manufacturing bans, fluorescent tubes or energy-saving lamps, as they are often called, do not have to be removed from all lights immediately. Instead, they should continue to burn until they extinguish themselves due to age. Retailers are also allowed to continue selling their stocks. This means that mercury-containing lamps will keep the recycling industry busy for a long time to come: According to estimates by the Federal Office for the Environment, there are still 100 million of them in circulation in Switzerland. As energy-saving light bulbs in particular last a very long time, it will be years before they all reach the end of their life and are recycled.

If the glass breaks, the mercury can escape. Special care should therefore be taken when handling used fluorescent tubes.

Back to the sales or collection points

Because of the highly toxic heavy metal, mercury-containing lamps must never be disposed of in household rubbish. The risk of toxic vapours escaping and harming people and the environment is too great. Fluorescent lamps should therefore be returned to the point of sale or disposed of at official SENS collection centres. There they are recycled and broken down into their components: Aluminium and glass are almost 100% recycled. The mercury is separated from the recyclable materials in a special process and then stored safely in underground landfill sites.

Did you know that LEDs are considered highly efficient?

LEDs, or light emitting diodes, work with semiconductors. LED lamps are even more efficient than energy-saving lamps: they have a luminous efficacy of 150 lm/W and last up to 50,000 hours. They also contain only small amounts of harmful substances, which are considered harmless to humans and the environment. Nevertheless, they also need to be recycled at the end of their life: in addition to the semiconductors, they contain valuable metals, plastics and glass, which can be returned to the raw materials cycle if disposed of correctly.

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