FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Are Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs Really Green?

Sesame Street broadcasts started nearly two decades after my elementary school years. So like many adults, I watched Sesame Street with my children and grandson. A favorite segment asked which “one of these things is not like the others?”

In this era of everything labeled green and sustainable, this critical thinking lesson should be used more often. Which one these things, for example, is not like the others: weatherizing and insulating homes, energy efficient appliances, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs)? Hint: it is the one the Environmental Protection Agency classifies as hazardous waste,

CFLs contain 2.5-5.0 milligrams of mercury, a known toxin that directly and cumulatively affects human health, water, air, soils, and wildlife. In Oregon and nationally, more than 95% of used household CFLs are discarded as household waste and nearly 100% of the CFLs disposed in garbage are broken and release mercury during collection, compaction, and delivery.

Households located in the three-county Portland (Oregon) Metro regional government jurisdiction are using an estimated five-to-six million bulbs and are storing millions more spent bulbs. Metro hopes to capture just 50,000 (2.5%) of the more than 2 million bulbs that will be collected and delivered to Metro landfills and garbage transfer stations in 2011. More than two-thirds of Metro’s 700,000 households must drive at least 20 miles to dispose spent bulbs at Metro’s two hazardous waste facilities.

Metro and other local governments seem unfazed by the escalating volume of mercury-containing CFLs. Metro’s sole strategy is to wait for the Oregon legislature to enact laws requiring CFL manufactures and distributors to fund CFL take-back and collection programs. This strategy persists despite similar product stewardship bills dying in Oregon legislative committees in 2009 and 2011. Even if CFL legislation becomes law in 2012, another six-to-ten million used CFL bulbs will be disposed in Metro household trash before the law is implemented

CFL promoters dismiss concerns about mercury released from millions of broken bulbs. The claim: CFL energy efficiencies reduce mercury added to the atmosphere by coal plant emissions. Unfortunately, no evidence exists that CFL and other energy efficiencies are offsetting coal-plant electricity production in the West. Coal-fired plants generate electricity to meet base not peak demand, and rarely operate at less than full capacity. CFL use is unlikely to reduce overall demand for electricity — particularly in the West — unless paired with an intervention such as a carbon tax designed to reduce both electric power consumption and production.

CFLs — unlike other electric energy efficiency choices such as weatherizing homes and using energy-saving appliances — add mercury to the environment unless properly collected and disposed as hazardous waste. Without a reduction in existing coal fired generation, 100% of all used CFLs must be captured and recycled to avoid increasing total mercury releases. Even if CFL use were offsetting coal-fired plant emissions containing mercury, adding mercury to the environment in residential neighborhoods and at urban waste transfer stations endangers the environment and human health.

CFLs use about 75% less electricity than incandescent bulbs and burn longer. (Lighting constitutes as much of 20% of household electric energy use.) After factoring in the purchase price for CFLs, household electricity bills can be reduced provided savings in monthly bills do not induce consumers to add new electricity uses. The full cost of CFL use cannot be determined until the costs of recycling CFLs are added.

Industries demanding high volumes of electricity are attracted to the stability afforded by utilities generating electricity from coal. It is no accident, for example, that Facebook is locating new high-energy-use Oregon facilities in Prineville, a small Central Oregon community served by Pacificorp. Pacificorp derives more than 50% of its electricity from coal plants.

Sesame Street philosopher Kermit the Frog often reminded us that “it’s not easy being green.” Convincing consumers to use a product that reduces their electric bills is easy, but using CFLs isn’t green or sustainable unless and until most used CFLs are disposed as hazardous waste.

Larry Tuttle, the founding director of the Center for Environmental Equity, has worked for more than two decades to protect the environment, human health, and communities from mineral mining degradation. He can be reached at nevermined@earthlink.net.

 

More articles by:
August 16, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
“Don’t Be Stupid, Be a Smarty”: Why Anti-Authoritarian Doctors Are So Rare
W. T. Whitney
New Facebook Alliance Endangers Access to News about Latin America
Ramzy Baroud
Mission Accomplished: Why Solidarity Boats to Gaza Succeed Despite Failing to Break the Siege
Larry Atkins
Why Parkland Students, Not Trump, Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize
William Hartung
Donald Trump, Gunrunner for Hire
Yves Engler
Will Trudeau Stand Up to Mohammad bin Salman?
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Morality Tales in US Public Life?
Vijay Prashad
Samir Amin: Death of a Marxist
Binoy Kampmark
Boris Johnson and the Exploding Burka
Eric Toussaint
Nicaragua: The Evolution of the Government of President Daniel Ortega Since 2007 
Adolf Alzuphar
Days of Sagebrush, Nights of Jasmine in LA
Robert J. Burrowes
A Last Ditch Strategy to Fight for Human Survival
August 15, 2018
Jason Hirthler
Russiagate and the Men with Glass Eyes
Paul Street
Omarosa’s Book Tour vs. Forty More Murdered Yemeni Children
Charles Pierson
Is Bankruptcy in Your Future?
George Ochenski
The Absolute Futility of ‘Global Dominance’ in the 21st Century
Gary Olson
Are We Governed by Secondary Psychopaths
Fred Guerin
On News, Fake News and Donald Trump
Arshad Khan
A Rip Van Winkle President Sleeps as Proof of Man’s Hand in Climate Change Multiplies and Disasters Strike
P. Sainath
The Unsung Heroism of Hausabai
Georgina Downs
Landmark Glyphosate Cancer Ruling Sets a Precedent for All Those Affected by Crop Poisons
Rev. William Alberts
United We Kneel, Divided We Stand
Chris Gilbert
How to Reactivate Chavismo
Kim C. Domenico
A Coffeehouse Hallucination: The Anti-American Dream Dream
August 14, 2018
Daniel Falcone
On Taking on the Mobilized Capitalist Class in Elections: an Interview With Noam Chomsky
Karl Grossman
Turning Space Into a War Zone
Jonah Raskin
“Fuck Wine Grapes, Fuck Wines”: the Coming Napafication of the World
Manuel García, Jr.
Climate Change Bites Big Business
Alberto Zuppi - Cesar Chelala
Argentina at a Crossroads
Chris Wright
On “Bullshit Jobs”
Rosita A. Sweetman
Dear Jorge: On the Pope’s Visit to Ireland
Binoy Kampmark
Authoritarian Revocations: Australia, Terrorism and Citizenship
Sara Johnson
The Incredible Benefits of Sagebrush and Juniper in the West
Martin Billheimer
White & Red Aunts, Capital Gains and Anarchy
Walter Clemens
Enough Already! Donald J. Trump Resignation Speech
August 13, 2018
Michael Colby
Migrant Injustice: Ben & Jerry’s Farmworker Exploitation
John Davis
California: Waging War on Wildfire
Alex Strauss
Chasing Shadows: Socialism Won’t Go Away Because It is Capitalism’s Antithesis 
Kathy Kelly
U.S. is Complicit in Child Slaughter in Yemen
Fran Shor
The Distemper of White Spite
Chad Hanson
We Know How to Protect Homes From Wildfires. Logging Isn’t the Way to Do It
Faisal Khan
Nawaz Sharif: Has Pakistan’s Houdini Finally Met his End?
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Versus Journalism: the Travails of Fourth Estate
Wim Laven
Honestly Looking at Family Values
Fred Gardner
Exploiting Styron’s Ghost
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail