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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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