Mercury and CFL’s

Ideas and Issues

Nfree-cfl-light-bulbew Orleans There are real issues around light bulbs, especially around mercury, but let’s separate all of the hype about stockpiling bulbs, deciding on what kind of “light we like,” and find some solid ground before screwing our minds up as we screw a bulb out.

Incandescent bulbs are the old school, back-to-Edison favorites we know and love.  They are ubiquitous and have been for 130 years, they are cheap, but in these days when it matters, they use too much juice.  CFLs, “compact fluorescent lights,” are the squiggly little dudes being pushed by many (read Wal-Mart as the big one) to replace the incandescent.  This has turned into a hard sell even though many non-profits even have give-away programs to lure folks over.  CFLs have a big nasty problem though which is mercury and how to safely dispose of the bulbs when they move from being a light source to a toxic waste.  The last on the current big-3 list is LEDs meaning “light emitting diodes.”  They don’t have the mercury downside of CFLs or the energy grubbing problem of incandescent, but they haven’t found love in the market place yet, so the price is consumer price is exorbitant and despite their many benefits, marketing is not one, when you think of screwing in a “diode.”

The uproar and angst is about a 2007 piece of legislation which says that by January 2012 the various incandescent bulb manufacturers have to make some changes to make such bulbs better.   Penelope Green of the New York Times (May 26, 2011) does a great job of laying out what this really means:

“The law does not ban the use or manufacture of all incandescent bulbs, nor does it mandate the use of compact fluorescent ones.  It simply requires that companies make some of their incandescent bulbs work a bit better, meeting a series of rolling deadlines between 2012 and 2014.  Furthermore, all sorts of exemptions are written into the law, which means that all sorts of bulbs, including ‘specialty bulbs’ …as well as three-way bulbs, silver bottomed bulbs, chandelier bulbs, refrigerator bulbs, plant lights, and many, many others.  Nonetheless, as the deadline for the first phase of the legislation looms, light bulb confusion – even profound light bulb anxiety – is roiling the minds of many.”

Reading all of this stuff over the last three or four months and talking to experts in the industry, though I have become convinced that we need to move past what I suspect is mainly marketing and sales hype by incandescent manufacturers, and look at something that is really worth worrying about in the future which is the mercury problem that comes with CFLs.  The EPA has long lists of guidelines for how to dispose of CFLs to contain the mercury.  There are numerous lists of places that supposedly provide safe disposal sites, including Home Depot and Loews stores.

Most of that turns out to be a mirage and a bunch of baloney.

Florescent manufacturers in many cases want you to dispose of the long bulbs by reassembling the spent bulbs in the original packaging and mailing back to them or returning to a site.  Who does that?  Next to nobody!  Reading all of this recently, I both felt foolish for the number of times I stood over garbage cans and broke the bulbs to fit them in the can, and I felt concerned for janitorial workers I represent and know and the toxic waste areas of over the top mercury readings that are around the dumpsters they are filling behind tall buildings downtown and the adverse health impacts attendant with no system and no knowledge of the real risks.

The disposal sites are no better.  Most of them, as I said, are Home Depots and Loews stores.  God bless them for standing up to handle this for those wise enough and motivated sufficiently to drive their old CFLs down to these big boxes.  Unfortunately reality impinges on the best of intentions.  A friend calling Home Depots in the Detroit area struck out at more than 25 stores that were listed as disposal centers, but didn’t really handle disposal or know how to get rid of the bulbs other than to tell the customer how to mail them back.  In greater New Orleans another friend talked to a Home Depot manager, who said he would love to help and thought the company might even support something real, but was apologetic about the fact that they were still part of the problem, not the solution.

Let’s agree on the following:

First, let’s take a deep breath about the panic on incandescent and focus clearly on the real issues and that means not stockpiling but creating a better and safer environment for everyone here.

Secondly, and especially if Wal-Mart, the mighty distributor of all things under the sun, is claiming they are going to sell a gazillion CFLs, let’s take the responsibility to create a real campaign to educate the public about the mercury risks and therefore the proper disposal program for florescent bulbs, and that includes working with Home Depot, Loews, manufacturers, and even Wal-Mart’s to create safe and secure disposal centers, prepared and funded to handle these problems.

Thirdly, let’s make it a special priority to protect children at schools where fluorescents already rule and their custodial workers although with the similar  workers in countless offices both under the lights and who handle the dirty business of getting rid of this mercury, so that everyone under the glow of CFLs and fluorescents can use them safely and securely.

This should not be that hard, but as long as we are all being kept in the dark about the real issues, it is easy to ignore the mercury risks and continue to not build the campaign we need to bring the light to both consumers and producers about these issues.