By Richie Gerber
I haven’t seen Bob and his wife Sally for over 38 years. These are not their real names since I promised to protect their identities. You will see why shortly. Bob and I taught at Newport Junior High School in Newport, Maine back in the 70’s. It was a six-class schoolhouse. Bob was the science teacher. He always teased me about my bean sprout sandwiches back then and even now. I have been a vegetarian since 1970 so Bob and I had lots of lunches together in the teacher’s room. Trust me; nobody else in the school was eating bean sprout sandwiches on my wife Julie’s homemade bread.
After recently finding me online, Bob and I scheduled a lunch at the Whole Foods Market in Plantation, Florida. I love this store. I built it back in the 1990’s and sold it to Whole Foods in 1997. I always like to visit this very special store. Bob arrived with his wife and after a few minutes of small talk we loaded up at the salad bar and sat in the café for lunch and some catching up. We talked about what everyone was doing. Some of the old names were not doing much since they passed away. We had a great deal of fun remembering and catching up.
I decided that these two old teacher friends could help me with an unscientific survey. Bob and Sally have more education than the majority of Mainers so I thought they were the perfect candidates. That morning I had posted the first entry on my blog– “Compact Florescent Lights, a dim-witted idea”, the prequel to this post, and I wanted to get some sense of reality from these very kind and sincere folks.
Here we are eating lunch like the old days when I bring up the subject of garbage in Newport, Maine. An unusual question indeed, but they remembered that I was always different. I explained that I had recently posted my first blog and wanted some information from them. They were very kind to put up with talking trash at lunch.
We had a general conversation on how this small New England town deals with its trash. I then started to focus on my specific objective: Compact Florescent Lights (CFLs). I asked Bob about his experience with these bulbs. I use his story because I think it is very universal. Here is Bob’s experience with CFLs.
About two years ago Mainers were flooded with discount coupons and rebates to purchase as many CFLs as they want for twenty-five cents each. It came as a form of a partial discount and a mail in rebate, however, a quarter is a quarter. They considered it a sort of free give away. He counted out loud and told me he bought over 30 CFLs at this reduced price. He had two reasons for the purchase: they were almost free and he would save money on energy. Being a retired science teacher he was able to figure out the estimated dollars he would save while doing a good deed for the country and planet. That is how Bob thought. It was a noble win-win scenario.
I then asked Bob about the results of his switch to CFLs. He and his wife both shook their heads and seemed a little apprehensive to answer any more questions, but I kept on drilling. In the less than two years that he had the new bulbs, three of them “blew”. Not in the sense of exploding but rather they failed. That is a 30% failure rate in less than two years. These three twenty-five cent bulbs had to be replaced with nine-dollar bulbs since there were no more discounts coupons or rebates. So now Bob is starting to feel some economic pain after spending almost thirty dollars on three bulbs.
Here is where the fun begins. I requested an honest answer. I asked Bob and Sally how they disposed of the three defective bulbs. They became so quiet that you could hear my tofu salad wilt. As I said in the opening of this piece this is a true story but the names have been changed and here is why. They threw each of the three defective bulbs in the trash! What? You heard right. They threw all three mercury filled bulbs in the trash! No separate bagging. No special stop at the proper recycling area. Nothing. Just threw them in the trash.
Bob and Sally were so embarrassed. Bob being an ex-science teacher understood the negative impact on the environment these mercury filled bulbs have. The US government called mercury “the world’s gravest chemical problem.” I could see it in their faces and hear it in their voices. They knew it was wrong. They are both educated, retired teachers. Bob was always a role model, coach and mentor to lots of kids. He donated his time to charities and to kids in need. They are both noble folks trying to do the right thing. They told me how they participate in a communal organic garden and use only recycled plastic bags when grocery shopping. Bob and Sally are people of high moral character and should not be judged on this, but they do teach us a lesson and, in fact, add strength to my point that these CFLs are an environmental catastrophe waiting to happen. People are not disposing of these bulbs properly and probably never will. It’s like trying to un-pop popcorn–once the toxic mercury is released into the environment it is too late.
Americans have very low participation rates for recycling. Even my eco-conscious friends missed an important opportunity–three times. We need to face up to reality and realize that huge amounts of the mercury containing bulbs will be released on our over stressed Spaceship Earth.
Ep-BEE-Log: And where is our government? In Newsday’s article, “U.S. calls for treaty on mercury reduction” the government describes mercury as the, “world’s gravest chemical problem.” Yet in the article there is not one mention of mercury filled light bulbs. Not one word on the impending silent spring we are unleashing on ourselves in the guise of protecting our environment. It seems like there is a huge disconnect. Someone needs to complete the circuit. Connect the dots and stop supporting bad ideas. We all need to say no to bad ideas, even when they are the most popular ideas of the time. Even all the King’s horses and all the King’s men will not be able to put this together again. Lights out!!!