Sunday, January 06, 2008


While they're great for some applications, compact fluorescent light globes can be an expensive pain in the arse – the last of the $10 CFL spotlights in my kitchen just failed having lasted for nowhere near the predicted 6,000 hours. I knew the life of CFLs in my kitchen, where the lights are frequently switched on and off, would be reduced but I expected them to last far longer than they did. On the other hand, a couple of CFLs that aren't often cycled on and off are still working after many years, but their brightness is somewhat diminished.

Anyway, I'm sitting here looking at the spent CFL wondering what to do with it. There is no local CFL recycling scheme so in the past I simply put them in the general recycling bin. But that can't be a good idea; general recycling contains lots of empty bottles (the bottles can be clearly heard smashing together as each bin empties into the recycling truck) that are almost certain to smash any CFLs thus liberating the small amount of mercury inside.

The hazard posed by mercury in CFLs is so great that Europe classifies fluorescents as absolute hazardous waste: there is no quantity of the waste so small that isn't considered hazardous. Steve Milloy pointed out the CFL mercury hazard and other drawbacks some months back. Even though Milloy's article is spot on lefty biologist P. Z. Myers isn't impressed (my bold):
Steve Milloy, junk science peddler and loser, has a new crusade: he is opposed to compact fluorescent light bulbs.

I guess hysteria sells better among the global warming denialists.
Apparently unable to discredit Milloy's article Myers goes for the personal attack. But really, if anyone's being hysterical, it's Myers. Here's what the EPA says about disposing of intact CFLs:
EPA recommends that consumers take advantage of available local recycling options for compact fluorescent light bulbs. EPA is working with CFL manufacturers and major U.S. retailers to expand recycling and disposal options. Consumers can contact their local municipal solid waste agency directly, or go to or to identify local recycling options. If your state permits you to put used or broken CFLs in the garbage, seal the bulb in two plastic bags and put it into the outside trash, or other protected outside location, for the next normal trash collection. CFLs should not be disposed of in an incinerator.
The EPA on dealing with broken CFLs (same link above):
1.Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.

2.Carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a sealed plastic bag. Use disposable rubber gloves, if available (i.e., do not use bare hands). Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes and place them in the plastic bag. Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

3.Place all cleanup materials in a second sealed plastic bag. Place the first bag in a second sealed plastic bag and put it in the outdoor trash container or in another outdoor protected area for the next normal trash disposal.Note: some states prohibit such trash disposal and require that broken and unbroken lamps be taken to a local recycling center.Wash your hands after disposing of the bag.

4.If a fluorescent bulb breaks on a rug or carpet: First, remove all materials you can without using a vacuum cleaner, following the steps above. Sticky tape (such as duct tape) can be used to pick up small pieces and powder.If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister) and put the bag or vacuum debris in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal.
Having read the disposal instructions even Myers' faithful commenters think a CFL broken on thick carpet might require drastic clean-up measures:
I suspect the answer there might very well be "cut out the area of contaminated carpet and replace".
So, CFLs do pose a small risk, especially if broken, but with the push to replace hundreds of millions of incandescents with CFLs the general risk also increases:
Environmental scientist Dr David Spurgeon said: "Because these light bulbs contain small amounts of mercury they could cause a problem if they are disposed of in a normal waste-bin.

"It is possible that the mercury they contain could be released either into the air or from land-fill when they are released into the wider environment.

"That's a concern, because mercury is a well known toxic substance."
None of this solves my disposal problem. Should I multi-bag the CFL and put it in the general rubbish or toss it unprotected in the recycling bin where it'll probably get smashed possibly contaminating the people who manually sort the recycling (wonder if they've been warned, by the way)? I'm just guessing but I'll bet millions of used CFLs go out in the general rubbish every day. Oh well, all that mercury in rubbish dumps will just give environmentalists more to howl about in the future.
Update: In comments Jack Lacton points out something I forgot to emphasize above: just think of the millions of plastic bags required to double-bag every discarded CFL. Thanks for reminding me, Jack.


Anonymous Jack Lacton said...

And what about marine creatures whose habitat will be devastated by all of those extra plastic bags that I thought we were trying to get rid of to help the environment...

While I'm at it, welcome back! Sorry to hear about the Rotty. Great dogs. Hope your issue resolves itself.

4:11 PM  
Anonymous Dan Lewis said...

Sell your house. Accept any offers.

12:07 AM  
Anonymous the_real_jeffs said...

Actually, citizen grim, I use fluorescents as well. Like you, I oppose stupid and unnecessary regulations.

But I disgree that the "minute" amount of mercury isn't going to hurt. Mercury is a heavy metal, and is not bio-degradable, and stays around for EVAH (remember the problems with mercury being found in commercial fish, such as tuna?).

That "minute" amount of mercury, when multipled by several million (a very potential minimum number, when you consider the total number of light fixtures around the USA), starts to add up fast.

And since this is supposed to be a PERMANENT solution, this shrugging of the shoulders is simply passing the problem to the next generation or two.

And if this seems a trifle hysterical, I agree that it's an extrapolation based on a rough order of magnitude. But the basic premises are valid (e.g., we KNOW that mercury is a hazardous material).

And check out the comments to any environmental impact statement for, say, a power plant. Those can make this analysis appear positively Einsteinian.

5:15 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

the_real_jeffs, your comment about mercury in fish is a good point. Mercury gets bio-concentrated in the food chain - big fishies eat lots of little fishies, and over a lifetime accumulate a significant amount of mercury.

It's especially dangerous for developing children, as there is a correlation between high blood mercury levels and lower IQ.

I'm no "Greenie," in fact I rape the earth for a living :-) but I don't want my children or grandchildren to have to deal with a massive clean-up effort.

Australia is positively paranoid about being "poisoned" via nuclear energy but amazingly complacent about mercury.

Sorry to post twice & take up so much space; it's just that no-one else seems to be worried about this.

10:10 PM  

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