Here’s an interesting take on compact fluorescent lights (CFLs).
Over the last week I’ve done a couple radio interviews related to my op-ed in the Detroit News, “U.S. must move beyond Earth Day slogans.”
Thanks to The Bill Meyer Show out of Medford, Oregon, who had me on in the morning last Thursday.
And thanks also to The Paul Edwards Program for having me on yesterday. I spoke with Paul at some length about the complications of owning Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs (CFLs). In the course of the interview (which you can listen to here), I referenced a couple webpages that I’ll pass along.
The first is 18Seconds.org, hosted by Yahoo!, at which you can track the sales of CFLs in your state or locality. Michigan has bought over 1.2 million CFLs since the beginning of 2007.
There is some information on the mercury in CFLs fairly deep into the “Why Switch?” section. Here’s a taste of the copy: “All fluorescent lights contain trace amounts of mercury. But don’t worry — there is far less mercury in CFLs than in thermometers or old thermostats. Plus, using these bulbs helps
prevent mercury from being released into the air from coal-powered power plants. When they burn out years down the road, recycle them.”
But here’s a second piece I talked about that might take issue with those claims: “The CFL mercury nightmare,” by Steven Milloy of JunkScience.com. Milloy describes the experience of Brandy Bridges of Ellsworth, Maine, who faced a $2,000 clean-up bill when she accidentally broke a CFL, exposing mercury in her daughter’s bedroom.
Governments and corporations are engaging in huge campaigns to push the use of CFLs. The Home Depot gave away 1 million CFLs in an Earth Day promotion, and Wal-Mart is advocating them heavily. Check out this promotional video, “Energy Makeover,” from In Front with Wal-Mart, the company’s newest webcast program.
If the mercury in these CFLs, almost universally acknowledged to be a harmful environmental hazard, turns out to have serious health consequences, companies like Wal-Mart and The Home Depot could be opening themselves up to litigation. They may need to attach some sort of warning label (hopefully not a useless one that would win this contest).
In an Earth Day column last week that was skeptical about the gospel of global warming consensus, Glenn Shaw, a professor of physics at the Geophysical Institute, University of Alaska Fairbanks, expressed hoped that the climate change debate might spark a more comprehensive conversation about humankind’s complex environmental responsibilities.
In fact the opposite seems to be happening: the activist buzz over global warming is reducing the broader concept of environmental stewardship to a litmus-test on climate change. That’s why I wrote a piece that appeared in today’s Detroit News, “U.S. must move beyond Earth Day slogans.”
In this op-ed I examine three aspects of environmental care that show the comprehensive nature of stewardship, complex realities that belie the free and easy slogans of bumper sticker environmentalism: planting trees, compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs), and plug-in cars.
For more information about the sources used in this story, see these related items:
“The environment is begging for the Wal-Mart business model,” says H. Lee Scott Jr., CEO of Wal-Mart Stores in a NYT article, “Power-Sipping Bulbs Get Backing From Wal-Mart.”
The piece discusses Wal-Mart’s campaign to increase the sales of compact fluorescent bulbs, as compared to traditional incandescent bulbs. As Michael Barbaro writes, “A compact fluorescent has clear advantages over the widely used incandescent light — it uses 75 percent less electricity, lasts 10 times longer, produces 450 pounds fewer greenhouse gases from power plants and saves consumers $30 over the life of each bulb. But it is eight times as expensive as a traditional bulb, gives off a harsher light and has a peculiar appearance.”
I’ve converted probably half of the bulbs in my home to CFLs (compact fluorescent lights), but have run into problems when trying to use them in some places. Lights that use dimmer switches, for instance, don’t work well with CFLs. And some CFLs won’t fit into light fixtures designed to accommodate incandescent bulbs.
Wal-Mart’s clout has begun to affect the light bulb manufacturing business, as producers like GE struggle to change their emphasis from production of incandescents to CFLs.
And on the demand side, what’s called for in convincing consumers to go with the CFLs is a basic economic lesson: you are sometimes better off spending more in the short-term for long-term gain: “Wal-Mart will have to persuade its traditional consumers that it is worth paying a bit more at the checkout counter to save a significant amount money down the line, a seemingly simple task that few companies ever accomplish. It is particularly difficult at a retailer that has long emphasized ‘always low prices.’”
As is so often the case, the best economic decision is the one that makes best use of both financial and environmental resources.