Battle of the Bulb

When then-President George W. Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, he noted that, “New technologies will help usher in a better quality of life for our citizens.” One provision of the act required an increase in the efficiency of newly manufactured lightbulbs, starting with 100-watt incandescent bulbs in 2012. Additional requirements affect 75-watt incandescent bulbs in 2013 and 60- and 40-watt incandescent bulbs in 2014. The law did not ban the use of incandescent lights, as commonly believed, but it does prohibit the production or importation of bulbs that fail to meet the new efficiency standards after the cut-off date.

That law became effective January 1; however, the budget bill passed by Congress late last year does not allow the Department of Energy to enforce the lightbulb provision until September 30. The legislation that won overwhelming approval in 2007 has evolved into a cause célèbre this election year. The focus of our ire should be directed at the future cost of disposal of these new bulbs, not the efficiency standard.

Political Passions

The electioneering on lightbulbs has become intense. U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) is the most vocal opponent of the bulb provision of the law, believing it is just another example of a government that is overstepping its authority by regulating citizens’ freedom of choice. However, there was no such controversy when the original language for the rule was drafted. In fact, the language was cosponsored by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. and Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. The amendment to the act passed easily through the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Upton; was passed by the Senate in a vote of 86-8; passed by the House by a vote of 314-100; and was signed into law by President Bush.

You may recall that after Republicans won the House in the 2010 election cycle, Barton decided to take on Upton for chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. When Barton researched Upton’s past for evidence of a too-moderate voting record to justify leaving him in leadership, Upton’s support of the lightbulb efficiency standard was singled out. Barton thereafter launched the “Save the Light Bulb” campaign, which went viral among conservatives hungry for a wedge issue. Barton’s chairmanship bid soon died, but the lightbulb non-issue continued to prosper.

Unreasonable Expectations

Ironically, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for power plants in late December at about the same time as the enforcement date of the lightbulb standard was delayed by Congress. Both rules seek to reduce mercury releases into our environment, yet my research found, much to my surprise, that both emissions—from stack gas or broken compact fluorescent lighbulbs (CFL)—produce about the same magnitude of mercury release. The EPA says that the average CFL has 4 to 5 milligrams (mg) of mercury—enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. The agency estimates that over the useful life of a CFL (about 8,000 hours), the amount of mercury released into the atmosphere by a coal-fired plant to produce the electricity to run the CFL is about 4.3 mg.

Overlooked during the ongoing lightbulb wars is that CFLs are sure to increase consumers’ cost of lightbulb disposal. What happens to the millions of used CFLs that are tossed out in the trash each year? Chances are a large percentage are broken by users at home or are broken when compressed in the trash truck or compacted in a landfill. Regardless, the mercury contained in the bulbs is released to the environment.

Over the years, I’ve broken a number of CFLs at home. The bulb usually breaks off at the base when I am unscrewing the bulb from a frozen socket. I sweep up the broken pieces and residue, empty them into a trash cash, wash my hands, and return to my bulb replacement chore. Recently, I ran across an EPA-sponsored website dedicated to proper disposal techniques for CFLs. Should you break a CFL, here are a few of the EPA’s recommendations:

  • Don’t touch the CFL contents without protective gloves.
  • Escort all children, pregnant women, and pets out of the room. Next, open doors and windows for 5-10 minutes to air out the room. Turn off the heating or AC system and leave off, if possible, for several hours.
  • Collect the residue using stiff paper, sticky tape, and damp towels. Seal all in a glass jar with metal lid or in a sealable plastic bag. Do not vacuum up the residue, as it may spread the mercury-containing powder into the air.
  • Clothes you are wearing should not be washed, but double-bagged for disposal.
  • Store the broken pieces and residue in an outdoor trash container until “the materials can be disposed of properly.”

According to the EPA, the only proper method of disposal for broken CFLs is to take them to a hazardous waste facility.

Following the EPA’s advice, the out-of-pocket costs of breaking a single CFL could easily exceed the energy savings realized from using CFLs accumulated over many years and put a dent in your wardrobe at the same time.

What should I do if I break multiple CFLs on my carpet in a fit of pique after writing this editorial? The EPA suggests I call a hazardous waste cleanup firm. What would you do?

Dr. Robert Peltier, PE is POWER’s editor-in-chief.

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