CMA Ecocycle’s Daryl Moyle explains why urgent government action on mercury-bearing waste is critical to supporting its detection, containment and recycling.
Mercury exists in many forms, with varying levels of toxicity and stability. Its toxicity was notably discovered in Japan in the 1950s following a deadly outbreak linked to a chemical factory. The chemical element’s proliferation in Australia and the world stems from coal-fired power stations and a range of other industrial processes and resulting products, subsequently polluting waterways, air and soil.
One of the global efforts to tackle the adverse effects of mercury is the Minamata Convention on Mercury, which sees hundreds of countries convene in Japan to agree to efforts to cut their impact and protect the environment and human health. More than 100 countries have ratified the agreement, with recent signatures from diverse nations such as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Saudi Arabia, Uganda and even the State of Palestine. Other major countries such as the US committed years ago.
But despite signing the agreement in 2013, the Australian Government has yet to ratify Minamata.
CMA Ecocycle, Australasia’s licensed mercury recycler, has been focusing on the legacy issue to provide solutions for the broad spectrum of mercury-bearing waste in the nation and around the globe.
For almost 20 years, CMA Ecocycle has been separating the mercury from dental fillings and batteries and hazardous lighting waste. While battery and lighting recycling form an integral part of its business, reducing the impact of mercury-bearing waste is a key focus.
CMA Ecocycle’s Daryl Moyle says that he remains disappointed and bemused at the lack of action from the Federal Government on Minamata. He points out that the government’s Department of the Environment and Energy released a regulatory impact statement on Minamata’s ratification in December 2016. The statement identified a phase down of mercury as the solution, compared to the status quo and a couple of other options, but still no action has been taken.
“I think it’s been placed in the too hard basket in Canberra. The question is: is there an environmental minister who can stand up and take leadership on the matter?” Daryl says.
The Australian Dental Industry Association (ADIA), the peak organisation representing manufacturers and suppliers of dental products, urged the government to ratify Minamata at the end of 2018. Given that mercury is used in dental amalgam, a common tooth restorative material, the association is keen to address the vexing environmental problem.
Daryl notes that dental amalgam has been used in fillings for generations. Estimations from the ADIA show more than four tonnes of mercury go down dentist’s drains each year. To put it in perspective, CMA Ecocycle estimates that we would need to recycle around 150,000 compact fluorescent lamps in order to recover the same amount of mercury that a typical dental practice discharges into the sewer in just one year.
As one of the biggest mercury polluters, CMA Ecocycle has been encouraging dentists to install amalgam separators for years, noting that many different ISO Certified separators capture more than 95 per cent of the amalgam from dental patients.
“The ADIA is a strong supporter of recycling dental amalgam, but the problem is that not all dentists are taking action,” Daryl says.
According to the regulatory impact statement, Australian businesses would benefit from a more streamlined, transparent and predictable approach to mercury management.
Daryl explains that CMA Ecocycle regularly touches base with agencies involved in mercury risk mitigation, including the United Nations Environment Program Global Mercury Partnership.
He says that having mercury on the radar of regulators could lead to increased investigations and subsequently discoveries of mercury-bearing waste.
“The biggest players in this country dealing with mercury waste are the oil and gas industry. They are good businesses and we take their mercury waste, but a lot of it is stored and not recycled and part of Minamata is identifying sources of stockpiled material.”
As part of its global effort to tackle mercury-bearing waste, CMA Ecocycle is also reaching the Pacific Island and nearby South-East Asian nations by processing their mercury at its Campbellfield facility in Melbourne.
But despite seeing more inquiries in Australia and around the globe, Daryl says that until there is a critical mass, mercury will continue to be an undetected and wide-scale problem.
In the meantime, CMA Ecocycle’s call to action is for the Australian businesses that generate and handle mercury-containing waste to dispose of it properly. With its advanced equipment and logistics network, the company is ready and willing to help.
“We think the average business would be surprised to know exactly where mercury is being generated and where it is ending up,” Daryl says.
Beyond mining and dentistry, the scope of businesses handling mercury comprise electricians that replace fluorescent lighting, engineers that decommission mercury-containing equipment and hospitals disposing of thermometers and other devices.