Ecocycle minimises mercury risks

mercury risks

E-waste recycler Ecocycle is playing a key role in ensuring Australia meets its requirements to minimise mercury risks under the Minamata Convention.

Mercury is in the top 10 chemicals of public health concern, according to the World Health Organization. If released, its toxicity in the environment can cause serious, lasting health problems.

But because of its unique properties, it’s been used in products including barometers and thermometers, switches and relays, batteries, cosmetics, and dental amalgam.

The Minamata Convention, a global treaty, was adopted in 2013. It’s named after the bay in Japan where, in the mid-20th century, mercury-tainted industrial wastewater poisoned thousands of people, leading to health damage that became known as Minamata disease.

Since the convention came into force on 16 August 2017, countries that have ratified it have been working to control mercury supply and trade, reduce the use and release of mercury and raise public awareness. Australia ratified the Minamata Convention on 7 December 2021. At the time, the Government’s Regulatory Impact Statement assessed the potential implication of the ratification and found a net benefit of more than $5.9 million over 20 years in direct economic value to Australia, as well as social and environmental benefits. 

The ‘Recycling and Waste Reduction (Mandatory Product Stewardship-Mercury-added Products) Rules 2021’ came into effect nationally in March 2022, making it illegal in Australia to import, export, and manufacture a range of mercury-added products including batteries, switches and relays, compact fluorescent lamps for general light purposes, and pesticides, biocides and topical antiseptics.

Consumers, businesses, industry and governments are all accountable for the safe disposal, collection, storage, transport, and treatment of mercury-containing wastes. 

Ecocycle is the only Environment Protection Authority-licensed processor of mercury wastes operating in Australia.

It has a processing plant in Melbourne’s north and has invested in a plant with significant recycling capacity in Western Australia that will start operations in 2024. This plant will predominantly process mercury-containing materials generated from the oil and gas, mining and metal producing sectors, as well as domestic and industrial lighting products, e-waste Hg, and contaminated soils, including from remediation works.

mercury risks
The Ecocycle LP600 light waste processing plant.

Doug Rowe, Director of Ecocycle, says the Minamata Convention is a positive step to increase mercury recovery and safeguard those working in the industry.

“For too long, mercury wastes have been going to landfills or into our sewer systems and waterways,” Doug says. “There are solutions and answers to these mercury problems. We hope the Minamata Convention highlights some positive actions.” 

So where do we find mercury and what happens to the waste?

Lighting waste in the form of fluorescent tubes and mercury globes found in homes, businesses, and streetlights are slowly being phased out and recycled, making way for new energy-efficient LED lights. 

The old tubes and globes are collected in stillages, boxes, and bins, and processed through Ecocycle’s state-of-the-art MRT equipment. Powder that contains mercury is recovered during the process then distilled and the mercury removed. Glass and metals are collected for recycling and reuse.  

E waste can contain various amounts of mercury in the small fluorescent tubes found in TVs, monitors, and laptops. Robotics are used in a sealed, contained and filtered room to remove the tubes, ready for processing and mercury recovery. The powder that contains the mercury is then distilled, while the glass and metal are recycled and reused. The remaining carcasses are shredded and recycled in a safe and environmentally friendly manner. 

Dental Amalgam is a large contributor to mercury waste. As old fillings are removed the fine granule waste/paste is collected in separators, so the mercury doesn’t end up in waterways. These separators are changed over regularly, and the amalgam removed and distilled to collect any mercury and other metals.

Most dentists now have separators or collectors installed but there is still a way to go before they are installed in all practices. 

Button cell batteries contain mercury and other metals. The batteries are collected, sorted, and then distilled to recover the mercury while the other metals are sent away for further refining.  

Larger button cell batteries don’t contain mercury but are processed with heat, under vacuum, to gather the fine sand inside the case for further recycling and reuse.

Mining, oil and gas companies have varying amounts of mercury and hydrocarbons in their mercury removal units (MRU) that need to be treated, distilled, and the mercury recovered for stabilisation. This normally comes in large wrangle bags or sealed 200-litre drums ready to be placed in the large distillers or retorts with heat, agitation, and under vacuum. The catalyst can be further recycled once the mercury has been removed and the metals within are recycled and reused.

Mercury is in accessories such as switches on transformers, car boots and bonnets, fire water sprinkler heads, blood pressure meters, thermometers, balancing equipment, and the list goes on.

Doug says more companies in the dental and lighting industries are committing to mercury recycling. The mining, oil and gas industry also is proactive, exploring disposal options and decontamination of sites.

“Generally, the miscellaneous items with mercury are processed correctly in Australia,” Doug says. “Unfortunately, much of the e-waste containing mercury is not. It ends up in landfills and exposes employees dismantling these units to mercury.”

He says dangerous practices handling mercury disposal could expose companies to risks that, he says, simply don’t need to be had.  

“As seen in other countries around the world, e-waste recycling must be done responsibly, short cuts stopped, and employees protected and respected.”

Ecocycle has installed robotic, waste mercury removal stations that use Artificial Intelligence (AI) to handle television monitors and laptops. The stations have been successfully used throughout Europe, the United Kingdom, and United States for years. 

“We are starting from a long way back, but the technology is here,” Doug says. “There are no excuses to not get this right.”

Ecocycle has established a national hotline (1300 326 292) to help industry and communities safely dispose of mercury.  

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