About hazardous waste


Various types of lamps in increasingly common use today contain mercury. These include fluorescent tubes, high intensity discharge lamps, and compact fluorescent lamps(CFL, or Energy Saver). The latter, in particular, have come into widespread domestic and commercial use in recent years as a result of efforts to reduce electricity consumption. These lamps use a fraction of the energy consumed by incandescent bulbs, and are much longer-lasting. The chief disadvantage of these types of lamp is their mercury content. Mercury is a highly corrosive and toxic substance, with a variety of serious negative effects on human health and environmental safety. When mercury containing lamps (‘MCLs’) are disposed of in the normal refuse stream they are inevitably broken, either at source – by the person disposing of them – during transport – for example, in a refuse compacting vehicle – or at their destination, usually a landfill. Regardless of where this happens, mercury and/or mercury vapour is released, with potentially serious consequences for members of households; employees; refuse operators; landfill staff; and, due to mercury’s toxic effects on air quality, groundwater, etc, for the wider community. 


According to the Hazardous Chemical Substances Regulations, 1995 , mercury is classified as a hazardous chemical substance, and an ‘occupational exposure limit‘ (‘OEL’) is prescribed for it. This has implications for employers which will be considered below. As a hazardous waste, mercury is also subject to regulations issued under section 19 of the National Environmental Management: Waste Act 59 of 2008, which will be examined below. It is thus clear that both generators of waste that contains mercury (which includes any individual or entity that wishes to dispose of MCLs) and anyone involved in the transport, processing or treatment of such waste, must comply with the legal requirements relating to hazardous substances. 

Occupational Health and Safety 

Section 8 of the Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993 (‘OSHA’) sets out in detail the general duties of employers to their employees as far as a safe working environment is concerned. For present purposes, the most relevant provisions are contained in paragraphs (b), (c) and (f) of subsection 8(2). Read together, it is clear that any employer who requires or allows employees to deal with MCLs in a way that exposes them to mercury will be in contravention of s 8 of OSHA. It is thus incumbent on employers to dispose of MCLs in a manner that, as far as is reasonably practicable, eliminates the risk of exposure. Since MCLs are inherently fragile, simply adding them to ‘normal’ factory or commercial refuse will undoubtedly constitute a risk of employee exposure to mercury. 

Waste Disposal 

The disposal of all forms of hazardous waste is governed by the National Environmental Management: Waste Act 59 of 2008 (‘the Waste Act’). Section 19 of this Act provides that the Minister may publish a list of waste management activities that have a detrimental effect on the environment.