Friday, January 18, 2008

Environmental Myth Friday ~ An open letter to CFLs

This will be a hot one!

Dear CFLs ~

I *know* you are getting a lot of attention lately. People are going out to buy you in droves. I received a nasty look recently from a fellow shopper at Home Depot who seemed upset that I was even looking at incandescent bulbs for purchase. She haughtily grabbed her CFLs, and left me to my evil ways.

I just want to be clear on the matter, and let you know why I am not jumping on the CFL bandwagon. I hope you understand. I look forward to developments in lightbulbs in the future that allow for less energy usage, and address the issues below.

1) Aesthetically, and I know this is a matter of personal taste, but I find your light output harsh, and am very sensitive to your albeit slight flicker. I purchased a package of 12 bulbs several years ago with the intention of switching out all our fixtures. After installing the bulbs, I felt like I was in a hospital waiting room. I'm sorry, but this just will not do.
As a true substitute, you should save the environment and perform equally as well as the item you are replacing. Perhaps another brand or variety would have worked better in our living space, but I cannot afford to make the same type of monetary investment to find out. The bulbs were relegated for use outside for our porch lights.

2) Functionally, I guess I am missing something. You claim to last up to 7 years. I understand that there are fluctuations in use, but here is our situation. The bulbs I mentioned that we use on our porch lights? We have changed the front porch CFL bulb three times in the last three years. In contrast, a kitchen light with an incandescent bulb that is switched on similar hours as the CFL has only been changed once during the six years we have lived here. I suppose there are different draws on the circuits that could account for this, or perhaps the outside bulb is exposed to more extreme temperature variations (here in moderate southern California), but thus far I am not impressed with your longevity.

3) Politically, it is disturbing that despite the promotion of the bulbs by retailers, there is only one retailer, Ikea, that has stepped up to take them back (the bulbs contain mercury, a hazardous substance. Even if you state does not regulate them as such, the threat to people and the environment still exists). Local utilities and government agencies promote the use of CFLs, and even hand them out as giveaways. But, who is left to collect the bulbs? It is usually the local government (I suppose the ones handing the bulbs out are shooting themselves in the foot). Hazardous waste collection programs cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to operate per year. With new products being added to the list of what is considered a hazardous waste, and with more an more people using those products, the cost for some local governments is skyrocketing. Without assistance from the manufacturers or retailers, the increasing cost to handle hazardous wastes comes out of our taxes, taking money away from other important programs. You often hear the phrase "the true cost of low prices" applied to goods made overseas. I would say the same should be applied to a good that claims to save money for consumers on their energy bill, but does not account for its cost on the disposal end.

4) Environmentally, I am really opposed to the fact that you contain mercury. There is a general promise that your manufacturers are looking for ways to reduce the mercury amount, but no promise to remove it altogether. Perhaps the amount is so small, I do not need to be overly concerned if a bulb broke in our house (but here are the procedures to follow if a bulb does break). But, I consider the manufacturers of these bulbs (presumably overseas), the sanitation workers who collect them, the people at the processing facilities the bulbs are sent to (for states that collect the bulbs as hazardous waste), and the mercury level those folks might be exposed to. I'm not claiming incandescent bulbs are the end all be all, and might have their own as yet unregulated environmental hazards. But, I don't appreciate you focusing on the environmental benefits you purport to have in one environmental medium (energy savings), yet ignoring the repercussions your industry is having in terms of hazardous waste management. The problem will magnify the more the bulbs are promoted, and people look to retrofit their whole house, per the suggestion of local utilities and retailers.

As a retort, you would claim that the amount of mercury produced during production of energy to power an incandescent bulb would negate the amount contained in a CFL bulb. Ok. You may be using less energy, but you are still getting it from the same source. Let's look at the bigger picture here. The bulb is not the problem, it is the energy source. Instead of buying more CFLs this year, I am going to support my local utility in funding sources of green energy. More and more utility companies have the option to pay a little more each month so that they can purchase energy from renewable sources, versus coal-powered plants. I will make even more of an effort to conserve energy by turning lights off when I am not using them. I will make sure the real energy hogs in my house are in proper working order. Those are things that make me feel good about my choices, and that I am moving in the right direction.

I really hope that the technology for all energy efficient devices continue to improve to provide effective service with less of an environmental footprint. Many products will come our way that are stepping stones to the true solution to help our society be less wasteful and more mindful of future generations. We should continue to strive to find the best of the best solutions, and not settle for mediocre products.

Thank you for your understanding,



Sarah and Jack said...

Oh my. I just followed that link on how to clean up if one of those breaks, and it was scary. Scary because Jack and the cats broke at least 2 of those things before I decided that 1) they were too expensive to keep breaking and 2) I could not sew by the light, so we did away with them. Air out the room for 15 minutes???

Holy crap, I have killed us all. I didn't do anything on that list. LOL

Blondie said...

I agree with every word you say!

These are the reasons that the CFLs I bought are in closets, porches, and hard to reach fixtures only. We hated the light quality, and then when I learned about the mercury aspect that was it for me.

Very well put.

Jane said...

Thanks for the safety link. I have a few of these bulbs and find that they are limited because they do not seem as bright. Fortunately, I found a great deal at Costco, so they were affordable. We will be using a mix of these and the regular ones. I guess I will have to find a toxic waste collection when the time comes. I agree with all that you are saying here.

grungedandy said...

That sounds totally reasonable, you’ve obviously thought it through I wonder how many people who tut tut at you have actually though it through for themselves, or are they just spouting something they have read somewhere or what the TV says like sheep? You’d be surprised how many people just repeat almost word for word something they have heard or read and say it’s they’re view and can’t back it up when questioned why!
We have a mix of them in the house but none of them in any of the rooms we have to spend any real time in as the light quality is just too bad & getting your eyes fixed will cost even more in the long run! I don’t think we have any recycling programs over here in Britain that is something I will have to research so thank you for the heads up.
We’ve been told eventually we will all HAVE to go over to these bulbs because they won’t supply anything else! In fact having just had a conversation with my retired mum she was unaware that they have mercury in them as was I, it doesn’t say anywhere on the packaging I’m looking at one right now, it dose have a small symbol of do not throw in bin but no other instructions of what to do with it or what it has in it and mum says she has in the past thrown some in the normal rubbish!
Sounds like we may just be making another problem. Seeya hugya *G*

Rebecca Beagle said...

My experience with CFLs has been nothing but good. Both my husband and I are very sensitive to the quality of our lights, and yet you'd be hard pressed to find an incandescent bulb in our apartment. Yes, you do have to be careful with them and take them to a proper disposal facility, but I don't find that that's much of an issue. In five years of using CFLs, we've only had two burn out (after about 4 1/2 years of use).

We didn't do all of our bulbs at once, we just gradually replaced with CFLs as our incandescents burnt out. The quality of the light output has really improved over the past few years. If you only tried ones purchased a couple of years ago, I'd suggest buying just one new one, something marketed as having a warm output and giving them another try.

Jennifer said...

I hope it is clear from my post that my concerns are numbered from bad to worse. If aesthetics were my only concern, I would not have much of an argument. The new CFLs still contain mercury, a harmful neurotoxin, of most concern to those who manufacture the bulbs (You rarely hear anything about them. My bulbs were made in China), and those left to discard of a product containing hazardous waste.

It is an *inconvenience* for the consumer to find a proper disposal facility, but admitting that still does not capture the true cost of their disposal. I don't just mean your cost to drive to the facility, but the cost to transport the bulb to a processor, remove the mercury, and try to find markets for the remainder. If that cost, in dollar amount, were added to the cost/benefit analysis that is typically conveyed for CFLs, the value would be lower. The least the manufacturers can do in the interim is help out the local governments in running these programs.

I AM VERY MARY said...

Well then. That is eloquent. Eloquence about light bulbs. I have learned so much from blogging.

Angela said...

This is an excellent analysis of the cons that are very real. Thank you so much for all these post. I am preparing to teach a class on ecology next year, with a strong emphasis on reducing our environmental footprint. Your posts are giving me lots of material of real life examples to have the kids consider!