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Archive for February, 2009

2233726895_7675aa00afBy 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!!!

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Good for the Environment?
Good for the Environment?

By Richie Gerber

In a story today in Newsday by the AP entitled, “U.S. calls for treaty on mercury reduction” it cited the Obama administration’s reversal of past policy. Our government now desires a treaty to curb mercury use calling it “the world’s gravest chemical problem.”

 Now take the world’s gravest chemical and have the government vigorously endorse the production of billions of light bulbs that use small amounts of the world’s gravest chemical. Then create programs to distribute these bulbs as quickly and widespread as possible. Tens of millions of homes with many of these bulbs used throughout the homes and apartments.

These Compact Florescent Lights (CFLs), as these bulbs are called, contain small amounts of mercury. So now the government promotes the use of mercury containing bulbs on a mass scale while calling for a treaty to curb the use of mercury. It looks like playing both sides to me, or maybe just plain dumb.

True CFLs use less energy, produce less heat and generally operate more efficiently then regular incandescent bulbs. Coal fueled power plants produce over 50% of mercury emissions. So it makes sense that using CFLs, which consume less power will reduce our dependency on power generated by coal. This is starting to look like a no-brainer in the anti mercury proliferation scenario.

But wait. There is a dark side to this travesty. It takes more energy to produce a CFL than an incandescent bulb. So we have a frontloaded increase of mercury production. One might say that it is not our problem since these CFLs are made in China, but R. Buckminster Fuller had it right when he call this our planet Spaceship Earth. We are all in this together. China uses more coal energy to produce these bulbs which means their power plants spew out more mercury into the environment. The pollution goes into the atmosphere and rains down on our oceans, river, farm etc. Hence we have high mercury in global tuna populations as well as other seafood.

Besides the increase to global mercury proliferation in our environment there is also a long term ticking time bomb. Each and every one of these billions of CFLs  contains small amounts of mercury. These bulbs must be disposed of properly in order to prevent toxic mercury release into our environment. No problem here. Everyone, or least most people will dispose of spent or broken CFLs following simple governmental guidelines. Double bag the bulb or bringing it to a recycling center. Please note that these plastic bags have a negative environmental impact as well.

Unfortunately the number of people who regularly recycle is dismally low. For the US Government to think that people will properly dispose of these CFLs is beyond belief. According to earth911.com, in 2006, Americans only recycled an average of 23 percent of drinking water bottles. Let’s say people are more concerned about these bulbs and we get a whopping 60% of people properly disposing of these bulbs. So here is a possible scenario. Retailers and government sponsored programs sell one billion bulbs in 2010, which have a five-year lifecycle. In 2015 25% of these bulbs fail. This represents 250,000,000 bulbs. 60% of these bulbs are properly disposed of which equals 150,000,000 bulbs. This means that the other 40% or 100,000,000 bulbs are not disposed of correctly. Each year as more of these CFLs hit the home front the numbers increase so it is in fact a compounding problem.

Several countries do not think that double bagging is effective in containing the toxic mercury as a disposal technique. They feel the only effective way to contain the mercury is to dispose the bulbs in glass containers. If this becomes the accepted method than compliance will surely decrease as well. By using a glass bottle and metal cap we have increased the environmental impact of the lifecycle of these CFLs because of the energy and resources used in their production.

I have no doubt that in several years all CFLs will be banned. The ban will probably start in Europe and then spread to the US. Mark my words; the US will ban CFLs someday. So if you are looking for a bright idea to light your home or office, don’t make it Compact Florescent Bulbs because the government has already labeled it’s contents, “the world’s gravest chemical problem.” The bright idea here is to say “no”.

 

 

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