Dedicated to the balanced discussion of global warming
My interest in this subject came from a lot of talk on the web about replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFL). Much of this talk is surely driven by the Answer the Call: Make The Commitment campaign that Live Earth is currently promoting. While I was confident that fluorescent was better at producing light for a given amount of energy coming from the socket, the mechanical engineer in me questioned that it was a free lunch.
It didn’t take long for me to start to realize that lunch costs money!
Let’s start with Wikipedia which is always a decent source but sometimes can’t be trusted so we will dig more lower in this post. You can read the full Wikipedia reference here but I will pull out a few key passages and then add my comments.
The actual environmental effect of CFLs is the subject of much debate. Apart from the gross electrical power saved during operation, it is questioned whether the amount of power and raw materials used in their manufacture compares well with incandescent lamps, and also whether the mercury used in CFLs is a significant environmental hazard.
For a given light output, CFLs use between one-fifth and one-quarter of the power of an equivalent incandescent lamp, thereby saving significant amounts of energy in use and reducing the need for electrical generation. However, the energy required to manufacture these lamps is significantly higher than incandescent lamps, as a result the total lifetime energy (from manufacture to disposal) may actually be higher, (due to the transportation of all the component parts around the world).
Since CFLs use less power to supply the same amount of light as an incandescent lamp of the same lumen rating, they can be used to decrease energy consumption at the location they are used in (though they have a much higher manufacturing and recycling energy requirement than standard lamps)
However, because household users have the option of disposing of these products in the same way they dispose of other solid waste, it is expected that most consumers dispose of old CFLs with their standard domestic waste. As each CFL manufactured by NEMA members contains up to 5-6 milligrams of mercury, at the Maine ?safety? standard of 300 nanograms per cubic meter, it would take 16,667 cubic meters of soil to ?safely? contain all the mercury in a single CFL. [Ed. note: As a visual, this is about the same as the dirt from a US football field taken 4 yards deep].
Using this limit landfill containing more than 1 CFL with 5mg of mercury per cubic meter would be considered hazardous.
If CFLs are recycled and the mercury reclaimed, the equation tilts towards CFLs, and if non-coal sources of electricity are used, the equation tilts toward [incandescent bulbs].
That sure doesn’t sound like a great way to save the environment! If it is almost a trade-off between incandescent bulbs and CFLs then how are we supposed to get to the 90% reduction pledge of that was called for by Live Earth?
So now I was a little befuddled. Is Wikipedia wrong? Are CFLs so bad for the environment? Why would former Vice President Al Gore recommend something that wasn’t good for the environment? Surely, this was all wrong so I did more searches on Google and found this site on light bulb recycling (someone is making money off of this problem) www.lightbulbrecycling.com
The Mercury from one fluorescent bulb can pollute 6,000 gallons of water beyond safe levels for drinking.
It is unlawful for anyone to dispose of fluorescent bulbs as universal waste in the states of California, Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. [Ed. Note: Didn’t know that and I live in one of those states!]
Each year, an estimated 600 million fluorescent lamps are disposed of in US landfills amounting to 30,000 pounds of mercury waste.
By my math that means every year we already pollute 3.6 trillion gallons of water every year. To put that into perspective, this is the approximately the amount of water that flows down the Ohio River into the Mississippi River in 20 days. To put it in more perspective, if every person is supposed to drink 8-8oz glasses of water every day than this is enough water to hydrate 5 billion people for 4 years!
It sure doesn’t seem that we should be INCREASING the use of CFLs. Maybe we should spend time trying to ban their use! Perhaps we could get a former US Vice President to take up the cause – what is Walter Mondale doing these days?
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