I really had intended to give the topic of LEDs a rest for a while. But while catching up on some reading, I came across a story suggesting that, while LEDs have performance advantages over incandescents and CFLs, one can’t assume that LEDs are free from disposal problems. In fact, the paper’s authors from the University of California (Davis and Irvine) suggest that LEDs may bring their own “environmental burdens.”
The researchers, who are associated with UCI’s School of Social Ecology/Program in Public Health and UCD’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, distinguish between environmental burdens related to resource depletion (e.g., gold and silver) and those burdens related to toxicity (e.g., copper, nickel and lead).
The groups goals was to test whether LEDs could be considered “hazardous wastes” as defined by United States and California standards, look at how the threat might vary across different LED types and look at the overall life-cycle impact of LEDs. The latter was done, in part, to help designers and manufacturers make safer products and to help waste disposers and recyclers know how to handle LEDs that are already making their way to landfills.
Their findings, published in Environmental Science & Technology, were that some LEDs did pose a threat of leaching toxic materials if disposed of improperly, but the threat was largely related to LED color and intensity. In fact, with one exception, all LEDs exceeded Cali’s silver, nickel, lead and copper standards. The one exception is low-intensity yellow LEDs. One type of LED — low-intensity reds — exceeded federal lead standards.
The groups methods were pretty straight forward: Grind up LEDs and expose the resultant flecks, nuggets and specks to the equivalent of multiyear bath in acid rain, and then test for toxic materials in the runoff.
This isn’t the first time these researchers have used this type of approach. For example, UCI’s Oladele A. Ogunseitan has been grinding up and testing cell phones and other commercial electronics for some time. Ogunseitan has been the principal investigator in NSF-sponsored study on strategies for addressing e-wastes. Another group member, UCD’s Julie M. Shoenung, runs the school’s Lead Campus activities that are part of the Research and Education in Green Materials program.
In an online story, Gizmag writer Darren Quick, reports:
Ogunseitan blames the situation on a lack of proper product testing before LEDs were presented as a more efficient replacement for incandescent bulbs – which are now being phased out around the world. Although a law requiring more stringent testing for such products was scheduled to begin on January 1st in California, it was opposed by industry groups, and Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger put it on hold before leaving office.
“Every day we don’t have a law that says you cannot replace an unsafe product with another unsafe product, we’re putting people’s lives at risk,” said Ogunseitan. “And it’s a preventable risk.”
One point of this group’s work is that the time to act is now. LEDs were already entering the waste stream from auto industry applications (front and rear lights) and hitting the mass market in the form of cheap and ubiquitous holiday lights.
On a practical level, the group suggests that anyone having to clean up broken LEDs should treat the situation as if approaching broken CFLs. Wear gloves, mask and use special brooms and other equipment to gather the debris. They also go so far as to suggest special precautions for emergency responders to highway accidents.