News / Disposing CFL bulbs AZ Republic 3/12/2008

Arizona Republic: Go With Eco-Friendly CFLs, But Think Before Disposing of Them
Filed under: Earth 911 - March 12, 2008

By Mary Beth Faller

Americans have become enlightened about their lightbulbs. Millions of people are replacing their incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs), which use 75 percent less energy and last 10 times longer. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 20 percent of all bulbs now sold are compact fluorescent.

Although the bulbs have been on the market since the 1980s, it’s only in the past two years that they’ve become widely accepted by consumers, due mainly to two reasons: promotion by big retailers such as Wal-Mart, Costco and Home Depot (the latter gave away a million of the energy-saving bulbs for Earth Day last April) and improvement in the quality of the light. Old CFLs cast an unattractive greenish light, took a few seconds to go on and sometimes emitted buzzing sounds.

Because the newest CFLs last at least 6,000 hours and up to 10,000 hours, many people haven’t had to replace them yet. But when they do, that feel-good glow could dim. Compact fluorescent lights—as well as old-fashioned fluorescent light tubes—contain mercury, a toxicant that can cause neurological damage in people.
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Although consumers are exhorted to save the planet by buying CFLs, they’re not told how to dispose of them properly. Municipalities differ in their directions. Phoenix has no instructions on its Web site and tells residents who inquire that they can double-bag the bulbs and toss them into the trash. Mesa and Tucson encourage residents to dispose of CFLs during municipal collections of household hazardous waste.

Ikea accepts old CFLs for recycling, but most other big retailers don’t. The Salt River Project Web site advises customers not to throw CFLs into the trash and directs users to various municipal recycling Web sites - most of which have no information on CFLs. Arizona Public Service directs its site users to earth911.org for disposal sites; that Web site, in turn, lists the same municipal Web sites and commercial recyclers.

Environmental experts are clear: Even though the bulbs contain mercury, they’re a better option than incandescent bulbs in the long run.

“The major source of mercury is coal-powered power plants,” says George Koch, co-director of the National Institute for Climatic Change Research at Northern Arizona University.

“To the extent that using compact fluorescents requires less energy generated by coal-powered plants, we’re actually reducing mercury emissions. Those emissions are not controlled—they go up into the atmosphere. Mercury in compact fluorescents can be disposed of in a targeted way.”

The government estimates that over five years, use of a regular incandescent lightbulb accounts for 10 milligrams of mercury from the coal-powered plant. A compact fluorescent bulb accounts for 6.4 mg over five years: 4 mg that the bulb contains and 2.4 mg to power it.

Dumping CFLs into a landfill probably would not cause an immediate environmental calamity, Koch says, but there’s no need to do so because the bulbs can be recycled.

“The disposal can be managed—not that it’s being managed well now,” he says.

Tom Waldeck, executive director of the non-profit Keep Phoenix Beautiful, has been switching from incandescent to CFL bulbs in his Scottsdale home for several years.

“The thing I like is that I’ve got 19-foot ceilings in my house, and (the CFLs) last forever and I don’t have to get the ladder out and change them all the time,” he says. “They give just as good light, if not better, than regular lightbulbs, and we’re doing something that will save energy and keep our bills down.”

What will he do when the bulbs burn out?

“I haven’t even thought of it,” Waldeck says. “I would love to get some direction on how to do it.”

As the hours add up, many consumers will have a lot of burned-out CFLs and no clear direction on what to do.

Sylvania, one of the largest manufacturers of compact fluorescent lightbulbs, sells recycling packages for consumers to fill with used CFLs and send back to the company. But Stephanie Anderson, spokeswoman for Sylvania, says, “Even we agree this is not the best solution. Over the next several years, as the products become more popular, we’d like to see curbside recycling and retailers providing recycling facilities. We think that will happen once there’s a critical mass.”