They're unique in shape. They're extremely energy efficient. They feature fast ramp-up times, and offer much longer life spans than their shapely counterparts. On the other hand, they have a high first purchase price, don't operate well in extreme temperatures, and many are not dimmable. But thanks to state and federal regulations, they're beginning to take over shelf space in retail, local hardware, and big box stores across the country. In fact, consumers finally seem to be buying in to the lower life cycle and reduced energy use story lines. Yes, the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL) is coming of age.
This is great news for the environment, right? As the sales and installation rates of these energy-efficient lamps continue to rise, our electricity usage rates should decline. And the reduced need for generation capacity will eventually translate into lower mercury, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen oxide emission rates that spew forth from our nation's power plants.
Unfortunately, as with most things in life, there's no such thing as a free lunch. There's an ugly side to this feel-good story. Unlike its incandescent cousin, CFLs contain a small amount of mercury. If not disposed of properly, these funky shaped lamps can be harmful to human and ecological health. In fact, if you read through the “What to Do if a Fluorescent Light Bulb Breaks” section on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Web site (http://epa.gov/mercury/spills/index.htm), you might wonder why anyone would ever consider installing these lamps in their homes. These step-by-step instructions made me think I should be wearing a biohazard suit when performing this type of cleanup.
More than 37.3 million CFLs have been sold this year, according to the Web site 18seconds.org — a not-for-profit organization. This number will eventually grow into the billions. So what happens four to five years down the road when the first big wave of these lamps hits the end of their useful life? What percentage of them will be disposed of properly? What effect will improper disposal have on our own personal health and the environment?
According to the EPA, unlike small and large businesses, “Households are generally exempt from Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) regulations that govern the transportation, storage, and disposal of hazardous wastes that contain mercury.” And even though states like Vermont make it illegal for homeowners to throw CFL bulbs in their regular trash, you know good and well that a high percentage of them will do just that. Think about all the used batteries you dispose of now. How many of us actually bring these to an approved collection center? My bet is very few. So in the end what are we really gaining? Are we simply trading in one problem for another? It appears to me there's been this huge push to convince people to buy CFLs with too little thought or effort devoted to educating homeowners on the critical importance of proper disposal procedures.
I think it's time to borrow a page from the 1978 documentary “Scared Straight!” and graphically show Americans examples of the devastating effects of mercury poisoning and what can happen if we ignore this disposal dilemma. I think it's also time for the CFL manufacturers, not-for-profit groups, and state and federal agencies and organizations to ramp up their marketing efforts in this area to match what they're doing on the energy efficiency front. Only then can we hope that we've done all we can to prevent a simple trade-off of one problem for another.