Friday, May 27, 2011

Can the World Really be Trusted to Properly Dispose of CFLs?

I like my traditional incandescent light bulbs. They cast a beautiful and appealing light, they last long enough, and they are very inexpensive. Compact fluorescent light bulbs, not so much. I understand the environmental benefits of CFLs, as they last longer and use less power per kilowatt hour the entire time they are in service, but the environmental negative is of great importance. The light that cast is not so great, and they are very expensive.

I'm not sure if anyone really knows for sure just how much mercury is in each CFL, but their proper disposal is key to making sure that any amount of mercury does not get added to the environment. Is the world ready to be trusted with the appropriate disposal of an environmentally hazardous material in such a common consumer product? I'm not so sure.

From the time of its invention, the light bulb continues to be one of the most common technologies in use for the past hundred years and counting. We know this is true because not many people read by candlelight anymore or prefer the heat and light of a fire when it comes to elongating the waking hours of a day after the sun goes down. One of the most common sayings in many households is "Did you remember to turn off the light?"

A lot of times, the mercury-in-CFLs argument is compared to mercury in old thermostats. Those old thermostats certainly contain a lot more mercury. Pop the face off and you can see all that scary mercury flowing around in its little glass encasement. If you haven't switched from an analog thermostat to a digital one, you should do so as soon as possible. Make sure you dispose of that analog thermostat properly, though.

Properly disposing of a single analog thermostat is usually a once-in-a-lifetime responsibility, though. This is why I don't like the comparison with CFLs. Disposing of them properly is something the entire world will need to do quite regularly. Where we store our old CFLs before bringing them in for proper disposal is an important consideration. A box on the floor of the garage collecting a dozen or more CFLs between trips to the recycling park is just asking for someone to drop a gardening tool in it by accident and break some of its contents. A box full of old CFLs stored in a Rubbermaid container, in an enclosed cabinet is a much better choice. This too presents opportunities for accidents, though.

Right now, consumers have an option of whether they want to buy incandescent light bulbs or CFLs. With future governmental regulation, this choice could no longer be available, and everyone would be forced to buy CFLs. I haven't checked into it lately, but the last I read, CFLs would be mandated based on a scheduled roll out in the next couple years.

For environmentally conscious people, proper CFL disposal is not going to be a problem. For everyone else, it will come down to personal choices and individual responsibility. We all know it's a whole lot easier to throw a light bulb in the trash. If the majority of consumers decide to do that, whether it's because they've been told that "CFLs don't contain a lot of mercury anyway," or because they simply don't care about the environment, we could have a major environmental problem on our hands.

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