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Mercury waste in safe hands with Ecocycle

mercury waste

Australia joined the global fight against mercury waste in December 2021, ratifying the Minamata Convention. The treaty, which aims to protect human health and the environment from emissions of mercury, came into effect in Australia in March 2022.

For Doug Rowe, Director of Ecocycle and Recycal, it’s a long-awaited move. The experienced e-waste recycler made several submissions following Australia’s signing of the convention in 2013.  He says the introduction of the convention will help 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 and we hope the Minamata Convention highlights some positive actions.”

Mercury is highly toxic and can have dangerous effects on people, the environment and wildlife, even at low levels. But because of its unique properties it has been widely used in products including fluorescent lighting, batteries, dental amalgam, switches, meters and more.

The Convention covers all aspects of the life cycle of mercury, controlling and reducing mercury across a range of products, process and industries, according to the Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment. It includes controls on mercury mining, the manufacture and trade of products containing mercury emissions from industrial facilities and disposal of mercury waste.

Which is where Doug comes in. Doug has been dealing with mercury waste for decades and Ecocycle is the only Environment Protection Authority approved and licensed mercury recycler in Australasia.

Through Ecocycle, Doug and the team provide a full lighting recycling service from supply of boxes and stillages through to pick-up and provision of recycling certificates.

Lighting waste specialists work with businesses to develop the best disposal and recycling solution to help collect old globes and lamps, whether in smaller quantities or bulk collections. The company has purpose-built facilities in every state of Australia. Old ballasts and lighting frames, that hold the globes or tubes, and old wiring can also be collected.

mercury waste“Although the amount of mercury in each tube or lamp may seem small, the millions of lamps discarded each year make up the largest source of mercury going into Australian landfill,” Doug says. “From there, the mercury leaks into our environment and can end up in our food. So safely recycling fluorescent bulbs and tubes needs to be done by experienced and licensed recyclers.

“But it’s more than just recovering mercury. Fluorescent tubes and lamps also contain glass, aluminium and other metals which are recycled into new products, reducing Australia’s overall lighting waste.”

Doug says Ecocycle recycles fluoro tubes in an enclosed environment. The globes are crushed, and non hazardous materials removed.

Once separated from other components the phosphor powder, which contains most of the mercury, is heated. The mercury turns into a vapour which is then condensed to produce pure metal. The powder, now without mercury, can be recycled further.

One of the other major sources of mercury is ‘silver fillings’ or dental amalgam, which has been used for more than 100 years. While modern dentists rarely use amalgam fillings now, they continue to extract countless fillings from patients every year.

“If not correctly disposed of amalgam breaks down, releasing mercury into our waterways and the environment,” Doug says. “The mercury from just one amalgam tooth filling is enough to pollute 30,000 litres of water beyond the safe level for drinking. With the average dental practice generating about one kilogram of mercury waste each year, it adds up quickly.”

He says most dental chairs are now fitted with amalgam separators to trap any excess amalgam. Ecocycle provides a full service for collection, cleaning and recycling of amalgam waste when the separators are full.

Safety of the environment and people are paramount for Doug. 

He has invested heavily in state-of-the-art equipment to ensure maximum recovery of valuable resources to minimise the need for virgin materials. He has installed a battery sorting and processing facility, unique to Australia, to target the full range of batteries and is using artificial intelligence and robotics to make e-waste recycling of flat screens safer.  

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