Hey Mr. Green,
In most communities, compact fluorescents and other super-efficient light bulbs require disposal at hazardous-waste facilities. How does the efficiency and energy savings that the bulbs provide balance out against the use of noxious chemicals in them? My concern is that the average Joe and Jane end up putting the used bulbs in the trash because it’s more convenient; few people will take the time to go to a special facility for disposal. Is it possible we're messing up the environment in a worse way by using them than by using incandescents? –-Woodsy in Richmond, California
This is a timely question, now that Rush Limbaugh and other right-wingers are ramping up a crusade against fluorescent bulbs, complaining that a federal law to phase out energy-wasting incandescents by 2014 is an assault on freedom and another example of Big Brother socialists controlling our lives. But before I get too wound up about their paranoiac folly, let me climb on a creaky organic soap box and say that there is no darn excuse for not recycling fluorescent bulbs. In most places, a special trip to a hazardous waste facility is not needed, because there are now thousands of locations that take fluorescent lamps for recycling, and even facilities you can mail them to if you’re off the grid in the middle of nowhere. To find the bulb recycler nearest you, see earth911.com/ and for more on recycling bulbs, see the EPA’s www.epa.gov/cfl/cflrecycling.html
The reason for fluorescent bulbs is obvious: they only require about a fourth as much power as incandescent bulbs. Since lighting accounts for 15 percent of residential power use, that’s a huge reduction in emissions from power plants and a cut in the ghastly collateral damage from coal mining and natural gas extraction needed to get the fuel to churn out some 212 billion kilowatt hours of electricity just for home lighting. (If you’re curious about the environmental havoc of coal, see www.sierraclub.org/coal/)
To put it another way, replacing just one 75-watt incandescent with a 20-watt fluorescent can keep 500 pounds of coal from being burned, and keep 1,300 pounds of carbon dioxide and 20 pounds of sulfur dioxide out of our air, according to the California Energy Commission. Since we have an estimated 4 billion household lights, well, that’s a massive reduction not just in global-warming gases, but in all sorts of other dangerous pollution
Of course if we don’t learn to turn out the lights and get by with less lighting, we could still be suffocating from fossil-fuel combustion. It’s sort of like when we doubled the fuel economy of cars in the mid-1970s, but ended up burning 40 billion gallons more fuel today because we drive so many more cars so much farther.
The one major environmental concern with fluorescents is mercury, a toxic metal that can cause a range of disorders, from a foul mood to a damaged brain. (Yikes, is it mercury or Limbaugh eating away at these precious neurons?) Fluorescent lamps do contain a small amount of mercury, about 5 milligrams, though some manufacturers have pushed it down as low as 1.4 milligrams, according to the EPA. Your Joes and Janes are apparently not recycling many bulbs, though there is no exact data, partly because nobody is keeping track and partly because fluorescents last so long (5.5-year-average by EPA standards) that hundreds of millions of them are not yet dead candidates for recycling. So we won’t know the true recycling rate until several more years have passed. But I predict that your pessimism will prove prophetic, and that it will turn out to be depressingly low.
However, there’s more to the mercury story, because mercury emitted from burning coal to generate electricity adds up to about 48 tons a year, or about a third the U.S. total mercury emissions (although EPA rules call for reducing power-plant mercury to 15 tons by 2018.) Since coal generates about half of the 212 billion kilowatts of electricity used for residential lighting, incandescent bulbs themselves would be responsible for roughly 1.2 tons of mercury emissions from power plants. This mercury release would drop to around .3 tons if we were 100 percent fluorescent. Now assume that 100 percent of the 4 billion residential bulbs are fluorescent, and that each contains 5 milligrams of mercury. Suppose each one dies on schedule and is replaced every 5.5 years, for a total of 725 million expired bulbs a year. Do the math and you’ll find that if every one of these dead bulbs got smashed each year they would emit about 4 tons of mercury, or a net mercury release of around 3.1 tons, because their efficiency would partly offset the mercury released from power plants feeding incandescent bulbs. Moreover, the mercury in all these bulbs would drop to only about a half ton if all fluorescents got down to the 1.4 milligram level and had double the average lifespan, which some brands have already achieved.
Besides reducing the immense environmental damage caused by fossil fuels, fluorescent bulbs can save consumers a lot of money on electric bills. So it would seem to be common sense to get rid of incandescents and replace them with fluorescents. Indeed, Congress thought it was, and included the phase-out of incandescent bulbs in the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, signed by George Bush himself, who is hardly known as an environmentally friendly kind of guy. Now, however, there’s a outcry to repeal the ban, in a proposal lurking in the House Energy and Commerce Committee: H.R. 6144, the Better Use of Light Bulbs Act. This raises the prospect that we poor battered Americans, already driven to distraction by tweets, twitters, pokes, Facebooks, gory video games, reality TV, and a paralyzing infatuation with our own banality, will be further distracted by a fracus over light-bulbs. I bet you never dreamed that right-wing enviro-bashers could succeed in making some of us long for those bygone bipartisan rational years of George W. Bush.
Some ban-the-ban zealots use the Tea Party’s fashionable name-calling, polarizing rage, and anger validation to make their case. As one site, “The Plain Truth,” puts it, “With public anger building against what many perceive to be intrusive measures by the federal government, talk-radio giant Rush Limbaugh is urging the incoming Congress to flip the switch off on the incandescent light bulb ban.”
Plain Truth--confidently subtitled “God’s Hand Behind Today’s News”--goes on to cite Limbaugh’s bullying: “One of the first things the Democrat Congress did when they were sworn in and took the oath in 2007 was this lightbulb ban. So I think symbolically one of the first things we ought to do is repeal it. The government ought to have not a damn thing to say about the light bulb I buy. It’s none of their business, especially when this is based on a total, freaking hoax.”
Actually, 36 Republican representatives didn’t dismiss environmental science as a hoax. They voted for the Energy Act, while the seven Republicans who abstained apparently weren’t perturbed enough to vote against it. It’s not that Limbaugh doesn’t know this, because he and other right-wingers have hammered Republican Fred Upton of Michigan, for supporting the Energy Act and the bulb ban. How many Republicans does it take to unscrew a fluorescent light? Maybe all of them, under the new right-wing regime that has little tolerance for party members who deviate from their dogma.