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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

A Bright Idea?

Air Date: Week of

A compact florescent light-bulb. (Courtesy of Western Area Power Administration)

Compact florescent light bulbs may be more efficient than incandescent lighting, but they contain toxic mercury. Terri Goldberg, deputy director of the Northeast Waste Management Officials Association, joins Bruce Gellerman to talk about the environmental impact of fluorescents and the lack of regulations for recycling the bulbs.


GELLERMAN: In 1857 French Physicist Alexandre Beqcquerel came up with the bright idea of the fluorescent bulb and today they’re the hottest thing in lighting or actually the coolest. Unlike incandescent bulbs--which generate a lot of heat and waste energy-- the latest version of fluorescent bulbs those compact, spirally looking ones are highly efficient.


There’s just one problem with compact fluorescent bulbs: they contain mercury which is toxic and when it winds up in the food chain, can cause damage to our brain, spinal cord, kidneys and liver. Joining me in the studio is Terri Goldberg. She’s Deputy Director of the Northeast Waste Management Officials Association.

Terri, thanks for coming in.

GOLDBERG: You're welcome. It's a pleasure to be here.

GELLERMAN: There's just a small amount of mercury in these compact florescent lights, right?

GOLDBERG: That's correct. The amount will depend on the wattage of the bulb and the size of the bulb. So there's more mercury in larger bulbs and higher wattages.

GELLERMAN: Now until recently most of the florescent lights we've used have been in industrial places, you know these long thin ones.

GOLDBERG: That's right linear, they're called linear florescent lamps. Typically you see the four foot ones in fixtures, in all office buildings now, are lighted by florescent lamps. Or you see them in hospitals, schools, as you said industrial locations, everywhere. They're all over the place.

A compact florescent light-bulb. (Courtesy of Western Area Power Administration)

GELLERMAN: Now these bulbs these little spiral bulbs are winding up everywhere. And they're almost as cheap as regular incandescent bulbs.

GOLDBERG: That's right. They're becoming much more accessible to the consumer. Households are beginning to purchase them more and more because the price has come down and because of the energy efficiency advantages that they have.

GELLERMAN: I know that according to some industry groups there are about 700 million of these bulbs are being sold and only a small fraction are actually being recycled for the mercury content.

GOLDBERG: Yes, my understanding from the data that we've seen, we're seeing recycling rates for florescent lamps on the order of 20 to 25 percent of the lamps are being recycled in the US currently. Most of those, as I understand it, are the linear florescent lamps. Those are the more wide spread lamps that you see. And from a regulatory point of view there's no regulations related to waste generated by house holds accept for a local jurisdiction or a state jurisdiction. So, the vast majority of incandescent lamps are used for industrial or commercial settings. And so the target has been to increase recycling by those entities.

GELLERMAN: So what does the average person do? They go to the store with the best of green intentions. They buy some of these curly cue little bulbs and they feel good about it. And then it comes time to get rid of them and it's not okay just to toss them in the trash.

GOLDBERG: Legally, in most jurisdictions you can throw them in the trash if you're in a household setting.

GELLERMAN: Is that kind of an ecological no no though?

GOLDBERG: Yes, we recommend that people recycle these bulbs.

GELLERMAN: And where would I bring my bulbs? I mean that's a little onerous. You know I've got to accumulate my bulbs. Remember that those are the used ones as opposed to the new bulbs.

GOLDBERG: That's true it is a burden on the consumers and residents. And it depends on where you live what you can do with them. In locations where you have, say household hazardous waste collection programs some of those programs take these lamps back. Or you might be able to do it through say a Department of Public Works if they collect household hazardous wastes. But it's only in very few locations where the retailer is now involved in taking back these florescent lamps, like you have with the bottle bill. So for example in Vermont we're now seeing True Value Hardware stores, Ace Hardware stores beginning to provide this as a service to their customers. But we haven't yet seen that with Walmart or Home Depot or other large retailers of these products.

GELLERMAN: It's a real patchwork.

GOLDBERG: That's right and that's a huge challenge.

GELLERMAN: Well Walmart, really is pushing these bulbs, they want to sell one compact florescent bulb to each one of their hundred million customers this coming year.

GOLDBERG: That's right and as I understand it there's beginning to be discussions with Walmart about this problem for their customers of what to do with these bulbs when they burn out.

GELLERMAN: Is there really a benefit after all is said and done of using compact florescent bulbs as opposed to incandescent bulbs? I'm thinking of the mercury in the environment because coal power plants produce mercury.

GOLDBERG: That's right coal fired power plants emit mercury because there's trace amounts of mercury in the coal and they're burning millions of tons of coal and that gets released to the atmosphere. And I guess I would rather than see it as one or the other we really want to see people doing both. We want to see people buying and using energy efficient lighting and we want to see them be able to manage the lamps at the end of life correctly. We want to see them recycle these things so that both sources of mercury are being reduced. And I think as customers we need to begin to, more and more, engage our local authorities, state authorities, and at the federal level in this conversation about expanding the recycling and collection of these products at the end of their life.

GELLERMAN: Well, Terri Goldberg thank you very much for coming in.

GOLDBERG: Well, I appreciate the opportunity. Thank you.

GELLERMAN: Terri Goldberg is deputy director of the Northeast Waste Management Officials Association.

[MUSIC: The Slip “Sorry” from ‘Angels Come On Time’ (Rykodisc – 2006)]



Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association


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