Light-Up Africa: Transitioning to Efficient-LEDs, Professor Nakamura's interview

Light-Up Africa: Transitioning to Efficient-LEDs Presents an Opportunity for Green Economic Growth

By Dr. Oludayo Dada and Dr. Wondwossen Sintayehu

Minamata Convention Advisors to the Africa Region
Jul 5, 2021

Phasing-Out Mercury in Lighting

A decade ago, fluorescent lights were viewed as an energy-efficient alternative to less-efficient incandescent and halogen lights, and risks associated with mercury in each bulb were tolerated as a necessary trade-off for the efficiency benefits. Today, thanks to major advances in light-emitting diode (LED) technology, LED lights are a cost-effective, safe alternative that can replace fluorescents in virtually all applications.

“The technological advancements in LED lighting over the past decade have far surpassed even the most advanced mercury-containing fluorescent bulbs,” explains Shuji Nakamura, Nobel Prize for Physics (2014) and Inventor of the blue light LED.

“My work on blue LEDs enabled innovative bright and energy-saving lighting products to reach markets across the globe. With the proposed amendment to the Minamata Convention and implementation of national-level regulations to phase-out fluorescent lighting by 2025, countries can accelerate the transition to LED lighting technology to benefit people and the planet.”

As governments in wealthier countries like the European Union and United States phase-out mercury lighting products, un- and under-regulated markets, primarily in Africa, are at risk of becoming dumping grounds for low-quality, inefficient fluorescent lighting products. Without government action, African consumers will be left with dangerous, energy-intensive lighting options.

Proper disposal of end-of-life mercury bulbs remains a main concern in African countries. A recent report found that the collected and properly recycled e-waste (not just lighting products) was at 4% in Southern Africa, 1.3% in Eastern Africa and close to 0% in other regions. Most bulbs are disposed with general waste, where due to their fragility, the bulbs easily break and disperse mercury vapor into the environment. Mercury released from broken bulbs can travel hundreds of kilometers, then are deposited into land or water sources—contaminating vulnerable communities along the way. The mercury may then be converted into a bio-available methylated form, which enters the food chain.

LEDs remove unnecessary risk of exposure to toxic mercury vapors for people and workers when light bulbs break in homes, offices, schools, and businesses. They also reduce the amount of mercury contamination at landfill and waste sites by cutting the risk of hazardous waste at the source.

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