In 2014, the only lightbulb choice we’ll have is those little, coiled compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) that everyone’s selling, now. I posted a video, last week, that detailed the clean-up procedure for these CFLs. In honor of Earth Day, I thought I’d post about the hazards, energy implications, and truth about these CFL bulbs.
Not only do these bulbs contain mercury, they require lighting fixtures rated for CFLs, go through an expensive recycling process (on the few occasions that people actually recycle them), and when they’re not recycled, you’re wrapping them in two plastic bags to prevent mercury leakage into our soil. Let’s break down each of these items.
CFL Mercury Content
Every single CFL contains a very small amount of mercury, one of the most powerful neurotoxins known to man, amounting to about 4-5 milligrams. Let me start by saying that this is a very small amount, especially if it’s released outdoors. However, releasing this amount of mercury in your home or even a small room in your home can pose serious health risks to children, elderly, pets, and those sensitive to mercury. You can see in the clean-up procedure recommended by the EPA that you must take extreme measures to clean up a CFL break in your home. Note the clothing and bedding section where it’s recommended that you throw away any clothing or bedding that comes into contact with the broken CFL!
You will also find on the “Energy Star” site, linked above, a pretty little chart showing that the mercury in a single CFL is overcome by the energy produced to power a standard incandescent bulb versus the energy produced to power a CFL. It looks rather convincing, but I’ll show you in a bit why it loses a lot of validity when examined further. Also, these “mercury” levels emitted by energy producers cited by the EPA don’t take into account that the mercury from power plants goes through “scrubbers,” is monitored by the EPA, and is emitted into the air, not my bedroom. I’d also like to know how they arrived at a mercury impact of only 0.6 milligrams for landfilling a CFL when each bulb contains between 4 and 5 milligrams?
Longer Life Span
As noted in the graph above, the longer life of a CFL bulb accounts for the “less mercury being emitted into the air” claim.
“CFLs last SO much longer than those old incandescent bulbs!” That’s how they sell these bulbs, right? ”They’ll last for years!”
Not so fast. Let’s start with the time that you have a CFL on. Compact fluorescent bulbs are designed to be on for extended periods of time to meet their rated life — I’m talking 4 hours, continuously. If you only leave one on for an hour, the rated life drops by 20% and as much as 50%. If you cycle it on and off like most of us do in our homes, you’ve reduced the rated life by 70% – 85%! So, for the example the EPA uses in the graph above, an 8,000 hour CFL would now only last 1,200 hours. You’re now down in the range of many incandescent bulbs rated life.
We’re not done, though. CFLs function optimally in light fixtures designed for compact fluorescent bulbs. Not only will installing a CFL in a non-CFL rated fixture reduce the service life of the CFL (now we’d be getting down below the service life of those nasty, old incandescent bulbs), but the CFL bulb may not fit or produce the same lighting for the area. Additionally, most CFLs do not work in a dimmer fixture, unless the CFL is rated for dimmers and the fixture is designed for a dimmer CFL. How “environmental” will it be for homeowners to tear out and install new light fixtures?
It’s sounding more and more like these are not the grand solution everyone’s expecting and in 2014, you’ll have no other choice. Let’s continue looking at these “green” Earth savers.
To start this section, let’s look at how many people actually recycle CFLs. In 2007, approximately 400 million CFLs were purchased with less than 2% being recycled means we put 320 million into our landfills. How many of those do you think were put into two plastic bags to prevent mercury from leeching into the earth’s soil?
I had a great deal of difficulty finding any information on what exactly the process is for recycling a compact fluorescent bulb. You can find it, you just have to search Google a bit (something I recommend for you to do with any information you’re provided online, including this post). No one seems to account for the massive amount of energy, the machinery needed to recycle a CFL, the extra trucking for transporting the CFL to the recycling facility, the cost of packaging required for CFL recycling, and so on. All these costs in both energy and money need to be considered, if we’re going to make a fair comparison between CFLs and incandescent bulbs. Let’s break this down a bit.
To recycle a CFL bulb, you must first package it in an appropriate container to prevent breaking. Most recycling facilities will not accept broken CFLs — probably because their job is done, the mercury has already been released into your home. Now it’s just a bunch of glass. As for the packaging, the EPA recommends re-using the box the CFL bulbs came in or using the one from the replacement bulbs. You can also purchase boxes from your local home supply store to safely hold and transport your CFL bulbs to your local recycling location. I’m sure those boxes aren’t using trees for the cardboard, right?
Once you’ve dropped your CFL bulb, unbroken, in a cardboard box, off at your local Home Depot or IKEA (two of many retail locations that accept CFL bulbs for recycling), they must now be transported in a recycling truck (a different one than picks up your home trash, home debris, or home recyclables) to the nearest CFL/mercury recycling facility. I’m sure that giant trash/recycling truck runs on biodiesel or propane, right?
Whew! We’re almost there. By the way, your old incandescent bulb went out with your trash on the same truck that picks up everything else and has been safely deposited in your local landfill for over a week,now.
As for your CFL, it’s on it’s way to the recycling center where it will be mechanically broken, have the mercury extracted, be tested to ensure that all mercury was extracted from the bulb, re-extract mercury if necessary, assuming the mercury can be recycled on-site it will be recycled for use in new CFLs, otherwise it will have to be shipped to a mercury recycling facility. Once recycled, you must ship the mercury (remember, a powerful neurotoxin) off to a CFL manufacturer (almost every one of them is made in China — just a short boat trip that doesn’t use any fuel, I’m sure), and finally deposit the remaining glass into the landfill. Oh yeah, now that truck that picked up your incandescent bulb has to come to the mercury recycling facility to pick up the left over glass do put in the landfill with your other incandescent bulbs.
I think you can see now that CFLs may not be the “green” solution we’re hoping for with regard to our indoor lighting. However, with little or no forethought or research, the US Congress has deemed these CFLs to be the lighting you need in your home. In 2014, incandescent bulbs will no longer be available for purchase.
I would love to have your input on this topic. What’s the solution? Can we stop the incandescent ban in 2014? Are there alternatives to the CFLs that will be available in 2014?
Please note: I specifically did not “blame” any political party or group. This is not a political blog. If you want to comment on some of the items discussed in the post or refute the technical aspects of CFLs presented in the post, I welcome that. Political back-biting and mudslinging comments will be deleted.