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Circular Economy: What do you do with burnt-out light bulbs?

By Arlene Carvalho, from the Circular Movement

Do you know what to do with fluorescent light bulbs when they burn out and you need to dispose of them? The question is necessary when we know that this product contains mercury - one of the most dangerous chemical elements for human health, and still present in many other objects in our daily lives. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), human exposure to the metal can lead to a series of serious problems, from brain damage to respiratory complications.

Although many countries have banned the manufacture and sale of items containing the material, after the signing of a treaty called the "Minamata Convention" in 2013, it is still common to find them in some households, especially in fluorescent lamps. Therefore, the disposal of these products still requires a closer look, and above that, much more awareness-raising actions by people.

Brazil, for example, is one of the countries that no longer produce fluorescent lamps. Those still available in the Brazilian market are imported, or old stocks, for example. In 2022, the country imported 12 million units, and by 2023 this volume dropped to around 7.5 million. In 2024, until mid-April, it is estimated that 633,000 lamps of this type have been brought in from outside the country.

The data is from the Brazilian Association for the Reverse Logistics Management of Lighting Products - Reciclus, the managing entity responsible for the reverse logistics of lamps containing mercury in their composition. According to the initiative, moreover, the number of imported fluorescent lamps has been decreasing because they are being replaced by LEDs - an option that does not contain mercury in its composition.

How the reverse logistics of burnt-out lamps works:

Camilla Horizonte, Operations and Marketing Manager at Reciclus, explains the process of reverse logistics for burnt-out fluorescent lamps: "Any establishment that sells lamps, if available under the Sectoral Agreement, can have a Reciclus collector for free, and thus receive all the necessary support for transportation, installation, and removal of lamps (when requested). When the collector reaches 80% capacity, the responsible party requests collection through the website, and then Reciclus-approved partners perform the transportation and environmentally correct disposal at recycling plants. Thus, we close the life cycle of the lamp and avoid the extraction of new natural resources, promoting circular economy."

"The Reciclus Educa Program has been growing steadily, reinforcing that Environmental Education is not a change for the future, but for the present," says Juliana Cândido.

The collectors, spread throughout Brazil, can be accessed by anyone, just leave your lamp. Since the beginning of Reciclus' activities in 2017 until 2024, over 39.9 million fluorescent lamps have been properly disposed of in Brazil through the organization.

Flavio Ribeiro, ambassador of the Circular Movement, emphasizes that for all of this to work, it is necessary to reinforce engagement actions to make consumers leave their homes and dispose of lamps correctly.

"We need to work on values and practical guidance so that people know why and how this should be done for greater dissemination, education, awareness, and guidance of consumers on how to deal with lamp waste properly to avoid environmental damage and be able to return them for proper disposal - Reciclus collectors," comments Flavio Ribeiro.

As a national association and Brazil being a continental country, each region has different challenges when it comes to reverse logistics for lamps. For Natalia Fochi, Sustainability and Logistics Coordinator at Reciclus, it is "essential to establish rigorous logistical planning in close collaboration with duly approved carriers and recyclers."

After all, the organization's system operates in all 26 Brazilian states, plus the Federal District. This covers more than 600 municipalities, and this logistics, today, takes place predominantly through road transport for long distances, which generates a high cost inherent to the "hazardous waste" factor.

Attention to Regulation

Reciclus was created based on Law No. 12,305/10, within the National Solid Waste Policy, and follows government rules, involving various organizations in the lamp sector.

For Professor Flavio Ribeiro, the key to the success of the lamp sector lies precisely in something that is only a desire for several other sectors: the control of product importation - in this case, lamps. "Inmetro checks each importation, each batch of imported lamps to verify if the company importing them complies with reverse logistics requirements," he explains.

Currently, in Brazil, when you buy fluorescent lamps, the cost related to reverse logistics is already included in the price. This is called Eco-fee, which is about 40 cents per lamp. This fee appears on the invoice when you purchase. This means that only companies that have committed to recycling these lamps from the beginning can sell them.

"There is a whole structure to ensure that each lamp entering the country collects 40 cents for Reciclus - an amount intended to pay for its correct management. This amount does not cover all management costs, but it is important to enable the work," Professor Ribeiro concludes.

The Importance of Education to Advance Reverse Logistics

Reciclus also invests in education to promote sustainable practices and encourage attitude change for the environment. They have the Reciclus Educa Program, which offers free educational materials on Environmental Education for teachers and students from public and private schools.

For Juliana Candido, educational communication consultant, who works for Reciclus, the Program highlights the importance of building an education for environmental care and, consequently, for environmentally correct waste disposal. 

"The Reciclus Educa Program has been growing increasingly, which reinforces that Environmental Education is not a change for the future, but for the present," says Juliana Cândido.

"We receive contacts from teachers and municipalities that used the materials, and we see a great adherence and engagement. In these cases, we also offer on-site training for the school community, going beyond brochures and recorded material. The Reciclus Educa Program has been growing more and more, and this reinforces that Environmental Education is not a change for the future, but for the present," she concludes.

Thus, Reciclus stands out for promoting not only awareness of the dangers of improper disposal of fluorescent lamps but also for offering an effective solution through reverse logistics. Their efforts are not limited to environmental management but also extend to education, empowering teachers and students to adopt sustainable and circular practices. With a continuous commitment to regulation, oversight, and education, Reciclus demonstrates that the transition to the Circular Economy is not just a future vision but a present reality that can be achieved through concrete actions and collaboration among different sectors of society.

What was Minamata?

The Minamata Convention emerged in response to the environmental disaster that occurred in Japan in the 1950s and 1960s when the Chisso Corporation dumped mercury-containing waste into Minamata Bay. This resulted in serious health damage to the local population, with severe symptoms and even deaths related to mercury poisoning. The event highlighted the need for stricter environmental regulations and led to the creation of the Minamata Convention in 2013, aimed at controlling and reducing mercury use globally. Brazil joined the convention in 2017, along with more than 120 other countries, being promulgated in 2018.

About Circular Movement

Established in 2020, the Circular Movement is a collaborative ecosystem dedicated to promoting the transition from a linear to a circular economy. The core idea of the Circular Economy, the movement's foundational concept, is that every resource can be reused and transformed. The Circular Movement is an open initiative that fosters collaborative spaces with the aim of informing individuals and institutions that a waste-free future is possible through education, culture, the adoption of new behaviors, inclusion, and the development of new processes, products, and attitudes. The work is proudly supported by a pioneering partnership with Dow, a chemical, plastics, and agricultural products company headquartered in Michigan, United States. The Circular Movement currently reaches 4 million people through its activations and content.

And you? Do you want to learn more about the Circular Economy?

If you're interested in learning more about this topic, check out the Circular Academy, the first Latin American free course on the Circular Economy aimed at the general public. Together, through partnership and collaboration, we can make a difference in building a more circular planet.

About Reciclus

Since 2017, Reciclus – the Brazilian Association for the Reverse Logistics Management of Lighting Products – has been acting as the managing entity for the reverse logistics of mercury-containing lamps in Brazil. The organization facilitates safe collection, transportation, and proper disposal in partnership with approved recyclers and carriers. Committed to environmental education, Reciclus focuses its efforts on the production and dissemination of knowledge, especially for children and youth. Since the beginning of its operations, over 39.9 million fluorescent lamps have been collected at more than 3,800 collection points provided by Reciclus.

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