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MEP tries to ban lightbulbs with mercury amendment

Mad as a hatter

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As Bismark pointed out, laws and sausages have things in common - both are highly useful, but you don't want to see either of them made. An example of the turning of lips, ears and arses into comestibles came this week in the European Parliament. One idea quite seriously put forward was to close down the entire European lightbulb manufacturing industry - well, except for the lucky customers of one exclusive company.

It all starts with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Metallic mercury isn't all that nice a thing to have lying around, and there's been a concerted attempt to reduce the use in industry. This is working well and various industries like the chlor/alakali one are ceasing their use of the metal. As a great deal of their usage was roundtripped (used, recycled, used etc), this leaves the problem of some hundreds of tonnes of the metal to be disposed of.

Rather than export it from the EU (and the US has a very similar programme [pdf] running) so that it can be used by artisanal gold miners to poison the Amazon, a law (pdf) has been under discussion to ban exports. Indeed, the entirely sensible idea has been floated that this material should all be stored in an old mercury mine in Spain, at Almaden, where they already deal with the tailings and spoils of hundreds of years of mercury mining.

So far so good - a reasonable (to taste of course) use of the law to deal with an environmental problem. Then the legislators got hold of it. Remember, this is all about stopping a poisonous material from being exported to places where it might do environmental damage and insisting that we clean up our own messes. This amendment was proposed:

The import into the Community of metallic mercury (Hg, CAS RN 7439-97-6), cinnabar ore, and mercury compounds with a mercury concentration above 5 per cent weight by weight (w/w) shall be prohibited from 1 December 2010.

If we're trying to stop ourselves from exporting pollution, why on earth are we trying to stop people from importing pollution from elsewhere to where we can take care of it properly? But rather more importantly than that logical point, this would have had the effect of closing down the European lightbulb manufacturing industry. Apologies for this brief technological detour...

There are essentially five technologies for the manufacture of light bulbs, the first being incandescents. Well, we've already banned those in the EU. The fifth is LEDs, which isn't a mature technology at all as yet. It may become so, but this might take a decade or so. The other three are fluorescents, compact fluorescents and metal halide - all of which depend upon mercury vapour for their workings. It isn't just a dose of mercury into the bulb, though: there's a complex mixture of other metals (and iodine) in them, the dopants providing different colours of light, even intensity with some of them. All bulb manufacturers have their own preferred recipes and use multiples of them. Further, with the exception of a few products manufactured by a small Belgian company all of these different concoctions are manufactured outside of the EU, most by an American company* and a small amount from Japan.

Given the non-EU source of all of those mercury concoctions, the proposed amendment would have meant the end of the manufacture of such lightbulbs within the EU, leaving us all paying that quite delightful 66 per cent tariff on those imported from China.

Fortunately the amendment was defeated and so is not going to come into effect. Which really only leaves the question of why it was ever proposed in the first place? There are two possible explanations, neither of which are all that comforting. The first is that whoever proposed it is simply stupid and didn't know what they were doing (you can replace “stupid” with “ignorant” if that helps). The second is that it was deliberately designed so as to aid one small Belgian company to expand its market to the cost of the bulb manufacturers, and thus to we consumers.

So no, we won't be seeing the headlines “MEPs ban lightbulbs” any time soon, but that there are those in the system either so uninformed or so beholden that they would try this is not exactly reassuring.

Frankly, I'd rather watch the sausages being made. ®

*Disclosure: Another arm of that American company is a customer of mine, whence some of this information.

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