Dear EarthTalk: Why aren’t compact fluorescent light bulbs taking over more quickly from incandescents, given their substantial energy-saving advantage? And what about recycling them when they ultimately burn out? I’ve heard they contain mercury. – Nancy Holmes, Seaside, OR
Analysts at the non-profit Earth Policy Institute (EPI) estimate that the United States could close 80 coal-fired power plants if Americans switched over en masse to compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). A global shift, says EPI, could close some 270 power plants worldwide. CFLs use less than a third of the energy required to power a traditional incandescent light bulb to produce the same amount of light.
It’s hard to say exactly why a quicker transition over to CFLs hasn’t yet taken place in the U.S., given this substantial energy and greenhouse gas-saving potential. China, Australia, Canada, Venezuela and Cuba have each committed to phasing out incandescent bulbs entirely within the next five years, and dozens of other countries, including all 27 members of the European Union, are deliberating whether to follow suit.
In lieu of a federal mandate in the U.S. calling for a switchover to CFLs, the private sector, with some prodding from green groups, is taking some of its own initiatives. The nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, announced last year that it would double annual sales of CFLs to 100 million by 2008 as part of an effort to green both operations and inventory. Home Depot, Lowes and local hardware stores everywhere are getting into the act as well, giving CFLs prominent shelf space and offering deals to promote them. And Energy Federation, Inc., which has been promoting the use of CFLs since the 1980s, will ship direct to consumers anywhere from its Massachusetts warehouse.
Meanwhile, a coalition of non-profits – including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Alliance to Save Energy, American Coalition for an Energy-Efficient Economy and Earth Day Network – has launched an initiative with Philips Lighting, the world’s biggest maker of CFLs, to get Americans to make the switch.
Switching over to CFLs doesn’t come without trade-offs. Bulbs each contain trace amounts of mercury (usually four to five milligrams), a toxic heavy metal. Exposure to mercury can cause a wide range of health problems, including damage to the central nervous system, kidneys and liver. It is also a major contaminant, polluting groundwater and waterways and posing a health threat to wildlife.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the amount of airborne mercury present after a CFL breaks is negligible. Nonetheless, the EPA recommends that when a CFL bulb breaks, you should immediately open the windows and vacate the premises for at least 15 minutes to minimize the risk of exposure. Afterwards, you should clean up the breakage using gloves and/or paper towels or disposable rags (and avoid using a vacuum cleaner, which can stir up the airborne mercury). Remaining fragments, as well as any paper towels or rags used to clean them up, should be sealed in a plastic bag and disposed of at a local household hazardous waste collection site.
Burned-out CFLs can also be disposed of at such sites or, in some cases, recycled at the store where they were bought. To locate a CFL recycling facility near you, visit earth911.org and type in your Zip code.
CONTACTS: Earth Policy Institute, www.earth-policy.org; Energy Federation, Inc., www.efi.org; Earth 911, www.earth911.org.