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Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

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In Canada, Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs) are currently all the rave, mainly since the Canadian government has been intensely pushing this product for the past couple of years now. Their plan is to phase out most incandescent bulbs by placing a ban on the sale of these and other inefficient bulbs by 2012 (1).

Disappointingly, the welcoming change is all but that for some as they seem to have found comfort in a FoxNews.com (FN) article entitled, “Junk Science: Light Bulb Lunacy”. I encourage you to read FN’s article before continuing on.

Allow me to share with you an excerpt from the aforementioned article. “It’s quite odd that environmentalists have embraced the CFL, which cannot now and will not in the foreseeable future be made without mercury. Given that there are about 4 billion lightbulb sockets in American households, we’re looking at the possibility of creating billions of hazardous waste sites…” – Steven Milloy, April 29, 2007

Although I don’t dismiss Mr. Malloy’s claims entirely, his extremist approach muddies the waters of truth. You see, Mr. Malloy, although dimly (no pun intended) correct in stating that billions of hazardous waste sites will be created if opting to replace 4 billion light bulb sockets with that of CFLs, choose to solely focus on the waste created by this particular product when a comparison to the whole was/is needed. Question to self, can’t the average American/Canadian home already be classified as a ‘hazardous waste site’? With many toxins lurking right under our nose, matters of toxicity easily can and will be discussed in a future posting(s).

Fortunately for the environmentally thirsty consumer, and the many curious citizens for that matter, a plethora of scientific information is available in support of the Canadian government’s future initiative. One sound reference is available from ‘The Green Guru’ himself, Mr. Green, who is proudly associated with an American grassroots environmental organization that strives to protect our communities and planet; the Sierra Club (SC). Mr. Green plays host to a question-answer type mailbag on SC’s website, which delves into a vast range of environmental topics.

With respect to the present discussion on CFLs, Mr. Green’s July 1, 2007 mailbag specifically addressed the aforementioned article from FN’s Mr. Malloy. Mr. Green, with a passionate air, refuted the implications by expressing, “The Fox piece chides environmentalists for contradicting themselves by promoting fluorescent lightbulbs while having “whipped up so much fear of mercury among the public that many local governments have even launched mercury thermometer exchange programs” and going “berserk at the thought of mercury being emitted from power plants.”” Mr. Green continued by stating, “Yes, as Fox notes, a fluorescent bulb contains around 5 milligrams of mercury (although some brands, such as Philips Lighting, claim their bulbs have as little as 1.23 to 3 milligrams). What Fox conveniently doesn’t bother to mention is that a thermometer can contain 140 times as much mercury as a fluorescent lightbulb, making concern about these instruments eminently reasonable. Nor is it exactly going “berserk” to worry about mercury from power plants. Coal-burning power plants emit 50 tons of the stuff every year, around 40 percent of the total mercury emissions in the United States.” It should be noted that in Ontario (Canada), there are approximately 4 coal-fired power plants currently in use with a phasing-out program scheduled to reach fruition by 2009. As for the United States, approximately 133 coal-fired power plants are currently in use.

As a caveat, I would like to mention that although I concur with Mr. Green, I usually refute a given claim by first mentally swimming through any muddy water. Then, and only then, do I present comparison(s)/example(s) in support of my reasoning. In keeping with the flow of Mr. Green’s article though, I shall respectfully continue by presenting his arguments in his layout.

Mr. Green continued by stating, “Let’s imagine for a moment that all 4 billion residential lightbulbs have become CFLs, each one with an average life span of 5.5 years (the minimum for EPA-approved bulbs). That means we’d have to change about 727 million fluorescent bulbs a year. At five milligrams of mercury per bulb, that adds up to about four tons of mercury. Since fluorescents use only 25 percent as much energy as incandescents, installing them in all houses would decrease mercury emissions from power plants by 0.9 tons a year.” Mr. Green adds, “So even in the incredibly unlikely scenario that every single dead bulb were smashed, and its contents released into the environment, switching to CFLs would yield a maximum 3.1 tons of mercury each year–the 4 tons in them minus the 0.9 tons of emissions they offset. (If all bulbs used were the longer-lived models, with a life span of nine years, the net emission would drop to 1.9 tons annually even if not a single bulb got recycled. And as lower-mercury bulbs came online, the net release would drop even more.)”

Although not a long term solution, and this mainly serves as my reasoning for not completely refuting Mr. Malloy’s objections, I believe by encouraging the ‘everyday consumer’ to support products like CFLs, an eco-effective mindset will someday (hopefully sooner rather than later) reign supreme over the current eco-efficient utilitarian mentality. Of important note, Mr. Green’s maximum mercury yield calculation of 3.1 tons is actually 4.3 tons. If incandescent bulbs are responsible for 1.2 tons of mercury emissions annually and the use of CFLs would reduce that by 0.9 tons, then 0.3 tons of emissions still linger, hence the addition to the 4 tons (5 mg of Hg per bulb multiplied by 4 billion).

For those of you unfamiliar with the terms ‘eco-effectiveness’ and ‘eco-efficiency’, may I recommend a fantastic read in ‘Cradle To Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things’ by William McDonough and Michael Braungart.

In short, eco-effectiveness defines the design stage from the ground up for both eco-safety and cost efficiency. Examples include rooftops covered in soil and plants that serve as natural insulation. Also, nontoxic dyes and fabrics are examples of eco-effectiveness. Eco-efficiency, on the other hand, defines a concept of ‘doing more with less’, a precept that has its roots in early industrialization. It should be noted that reduction is a central tenet of eco-efficiency but the problem with this thinking lies in the failure to halt depletion and destruction. The eco-efficient mindset “only slows the bad down, allowing them to take place in smaller increments over a longer period of time.” This book truly has insightful and empowering thoughts. Since many real-life decisions come down to comparing two things that are both less than ideal, the reader is challenged to push forward and confront other troubling questions of social equity and broader ecological ramifications. “When the choice is consistently between the frying pan and the fire, the chooser is apt to feel helpless and frustrated, which is why a more profound approach to redesign is critical.” (2)

For greater ecological consciousness, I urge everyone to read this book! The Ottawa Public Library has 6 copies in its possession.

I would also like to share a website with you that I happened to come across a short while ago. It’s entitled ‘Environmental Defense: Finding the Ways That Work‘. Specifically, I would like to turn your attention to a particular page entitled ‘Making the Switch: Find an Energy-Saving Light Bulb‘. I feel the title need not be expanded upon.

Although I hope somewhat assumed by the reader, I naturally encourage the proper disposal of your old bulbs, be them incandescent or CFLs. While your local hazardous-waste authority is the desired source for safe-recycling information, many local hardware stores will take back old bulbs for proper disposal. PLEASE MAKE CERTAIN TO NOT DISPOSE OF ANY FLUORESCENT BULBS IN THE TRASH! Basic information regarding mercury in CFLs, as well as providing proper disposal options and what to do if a bulb breaks, as outlined by the U.S. EPA – U.S. Department of Energy, are contained in a fact sheet entitled ‘Information on CFLs and Mercury‘, dated August 2007.

Another great environmental resource is Earth911. For the Ottawa-Carleton Regional Municipality Region, Earth911-Ontario provides a solid foundation for community-specific information.

Locations that offer proper disposal of your CFLs in the Ottawa-Carleton Region can be found on the City of Ottawa website.

“The world will not evolve past its current state of crisis by using the same thinking that created the situation.” – Albert Einstein

Be Well.

CFL

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Written by Ethan Handur

August 22, 2007 at 23:08

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