Fluorescent Lights: Dealing with Their Dark Side

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are starting to light the way to a more energy-efficient tomorrow both in our country and abroad.

CFLs’ growing popularity is not surprising. Compared to the old technology of incandescent light bulbs – the Hummers of energy usage-- CFLs’ energy efficiency is nothing short of dazzling. For example, the ENERGY STAR ™ rated CFL bulbs use about 75 percent less energy than standard incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer. An added bonus is that CFLs produce about 75 percent less heat so they're safer to operate, and can cut energy costs associated with home cooling.

Efforts to ramp up the use of CFLS, however, need to be accompanied by a similar push to safely dispose of used CFLs. The reason is CFLs contain mercury, a hazardous chemical compound that can have debilitating effects on humans upon prolonged exposure. Some critics of CFLs argue that encouraging people to substitute CFLs for incandescent bulbs only trades one problem — poor energy efficiency — for another — public safety concerns related to improper disposal of hazardous waste.

Despite these unresolved disposal issues, many advocates of the new technology still choose to focus only on the positive aspects of CFLs compared to incandescent bulbs. For example, CFL technology is in the spotlight in the U.S. Senate as a result of the new bill (S.2017) introduced on Sept. 4 by Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M), chairman of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska). On Sept. 12, Sen. Bingaman said he hopes to add language to energy legislation currently pending in Congress that would completely phase out the manufacture of incandescent bulbs between 2012 and 2014.

According to Bingaman, when fully implemented, the switch to CFLs will save consumers up to $6 billion a year in electricity costs. The Energy Efficient Lighting for a Brighter Tomorrow Act represents a consensus among lighting manufacturers, energy efficiency advocates, and members of Congress from both parties.

In “Lighting the Future,” an article written by Anthony Zippis and Mark A. Ceaser and published in our June 2007 issue, the authors focus on the need to set up recycling programs for used CFLs. The authors point out that in July 9, 1999 in 64 Federal Register 36466, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency added mercury-containing CFLs as a new federal universal waste as spelled out under the Universal Waste Rule. These federal regulations streamline hazardous waste management standards for these specially designated wastes. Under the federal regulations, households that generate universal wastes, such as CFLs, are allowed to dispose of these wastes in the trash.

One of the leading proponents of safe recycling of used CFLs is the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers, a non-profit organization representing the majority of the U.S. commercial processors of mercury-bearing wastes. Last year, ALMR members recycled about 85 percent of all CFLs that were recycled in the United States. The organization seeks to promote policies and practices that divert CFLs and other mercury-containing products from the solid waste stream (landfills) and the environment.

As of 2006, nine states have adopted laws that are stricter than the federal Universal Waste Rule. Their respective laws require that spent mercury-containing lamps be recycled. For example, Massachusetts requires CFL manufacturers to promote recycling through education. In California, households and small business users can contact their local environmental agency for information about places to drop off their used CFLs.

In North Carolina, state legislators appear to have a sensible approach to promoting the increased use of CFLs. In the proposed Senate Bill 1256, several N.C. state environmental agencies are directed to jointly develop a CFL recycling program. The program will ensure that substantially all of the mercury contained in CFLs will be recovered and facilitate a phase-out of incandescent lamps without damage to public health and the environment from the increased use of CFLS. For more information about other states' CFL recycling programs, go to ALMR’s Web site.

As CFLs are poised to become the dominant form of lighting in the coming years, our state governments need to institute mandatory CFL recycling programs to prevent the widespread disposal of mercury-containing CFLS in our municipal landfills. Once this problem is resolved, then fluorescent lights truly will truly fulfill their promise of giving us a brighter tomorrow.

This article originally appeared in the 11/01/2007 issue of Environmental Protection.

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