Lessons Learned from CFL Lightbulbs… and Bags

by Ed Weisberg

Over  the past 10-15 years, we have all heard the cry to replace all of our household and corporate incandescent light bulbs with CFLs, those spiral compact florescent bulbs.  CFLs cfl bulbswere promoted as our future solution to economical and environmentally conscious lighting needs.   And why not?  They use less energy for the same light as incandescents.   Thus, while they are more expensive to purchase than incandescents, there was a case made that CFLs have a lower cost over their lifetime since they lasted longer, cost less to operate, and gave off less heat.  If we replace all inefficient lighting with CFLs it is estimated that we will save 409 terawatt hours (TWh) per year, 2.5% of the world’s electricity consumption, reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 230 million tons, and reduce cooling costs due to a lower operating temperature.  Sounds perfect right?

Guess what?  “They” forgot to tell you a few things.  Once we installed these bulbs we found a few major inconveniences.   They don’t light up right away, but take about 3-5 minutes to attain full brightness.  You can’t use most of them with a dimmer, and if you turn them on and off frequently, they don’t last any longer than incandescents.  And most importantly, they posed significant health risks.  A 2008 study found that the increased UV and blue light exposure was dangerous to people who are sensitive to light.  But more importantly, every CFL contains mercury vapor, a dangerous heavy metal, which poses risk to people around broken bulbs, as well as to landfills and incinerators.  This risk is so dire that elaborate processes and laws have been developed to require the recycling of these light, adding a cost burden to citizens, businesses, and governments.

Given the challenges and the dark sides of CFLs, was this a bad direction for us to go?  Maybe in hindsight, but at the time it appeared to be the best solution.  However, today, we have a more hled bublsolistic view of environmental solutions, which considers not only energy and GHG emissions, but also looks at l ifecycle environmental impact, as well as economic burden.  As a result, our country and the world is rapidly moving away from CFLs towards new LED lighting technologies.  LED’s are not new, but the ability to make them economically viable is, as is their clear environmental and health benefit.  Then why do we still have regulations that drive the sale of CFLs?  Legacies of laws past! The regulations and definitions are so entrenched in our laws, that they are difficult to change.

Why do I tell this story? Because we are seeing the same scenario in recent efforts to solve plastic bagthe bag pollution problem.  Grocery and “carry out” bags have gone through an evolution somewhat similar to light bulbs.  Initially, plastic bags were introduced as an alternative to paper bags which were stronger, cheaper, and more convenient, and  had less impact on the environment.   However, after about 30 years, we recognized that plastic lasts forever, uses oil and gas resources, and therefore, if littered, has a negative impact on our environment.   Processes were put into place to recycle and reuse bags, but they never gained traction with citizens.   Thus the invention of starch-based “bio-degradable” and “compostable” plastics was heralded as a major alternative.   It was viewed as such an improvement, that certain towns in California developed bag ban legislation, which carved out an exception for biodegradable bags that were certified under ASTM 6400 standards as a solution for consumers and retailers to carry their groceries.   California even built the US’s first (and it turn out only) commercial composting facility to be able to compost these bags.   As CFLs were to bulbs, Biodegradable bags were expect to be the panacea to plastic bag pollution.  But guess what?  While biodegradable bags, on the surface, seemed to be a solution, when looked at holistically, it turns out that we missed a few points.  First of all, they don’t degrade in nature, they need to be sent to a commercial composting facility (and remember, there is only one in the US).  As it turns out, it’s just as easy, or even easier, to recycle regular plastic bags.  Furthermore, due to the biodegradability, the new bags will contaminate the standard recycling chain, so they must be avoided.  Bio-degradable bags use food starches, which the world would rather use to feed our citizens. Furthermore, biodegradable bags are 5-6 times more expensive than plastic bags, so retailers are reluctant to purchase them.   Thus,  overall, while they use less oil and plastic, they are not really a better solution.  However, based on their promise and hope, most towns that are writing bag-ban legislation include a vestige of that original callout which allows these biodegradable bags to be used.

While biodegradable bags got us thinking about alternatives, finally, theecograde poster 2re is a realistic solution to the plastic bag pollution issue.  ECograde bags photodegrade from sunlight to a non-toxic residue if they are littered, use less energy, less Greenhouse gases, cost the same as plastic bags, and can be recycled with other plastic bags.  They fulfill the hopes and promises that we expected, but did not obtain, with biodegrable bags.  However, as we have seen in the light bulb industry, the market, and buyers, are skeptical, due to their experience with biodegradables.  They think they’ve seen this all before, so they don’t want to hear the arguments that ECOgrade is different.

One on one, it is relatively easy to educate retail buyers about the difference, as they are looking for a better solution, and they can review the facts and ask questions.  However, it is more challenging to educate government officials who believe that they are permitting an alternative when they allow biodegradable ASTM 6400 bags as an exception to a bag ban, but have been disappointed with the results.  After all, this has been in the wording of bag bans for years!   However, it is crucial that they can come to the realization that allowing photodegradable bags, which have been certified under ASTM 5272 standards, are the best solution to protect both the environment and their economy in a meaningful way.  Once that is done, these towns can continue to thrive.  We are pleased to see some towns and governments starting to understand this.  We look forward to continued success to improve the sustainability of our communities.

Edward Weisberg is Senior Vice President of Marketing and Business Development, GXT Green

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8 Responses to Lessons Learned from CFL Lightbulbs… and Bags

  1. Doug says:

    This article is flawed. CFLs pose absolutely no health risk due to UV exposure. Most CFLs on the market actually emit LESS UV than do the incandescents they replace. That’s right – CFLs emit less UV than do incandescents. Also, the amount of mercury they contain is insignificant in comparison the the vastly greater amounts of mercury that would have to be emitted by coal-fired power plants to light up the incandescents that the CFLs replace. And burning coal is the main way that humans introduce mercury into their own bodies – through breathing contaminated air and (mostly) by eating fish that get contaminated with the mercury released from burning coal.

    • gxtgreen says:

      Doug, thank you for your perspective. There are multiple articles and studies cited that refer to the UV risk, including Scientific American, http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=can-compact-fluorescent-lightbulbs-damage-skin . Regardless, you are missing the point. My point is that the laws were written around a certain solution which solved the energy problem, but was worse for the environment when considering the full lifecycle. Now that a better solution (LEDs) has hit the market which solves environmental issues and is economically viable, we are stuck with laws which favored CFLs. The UV issue is secondary. Thanks for your note.

  2. Doug says:

    While I agree that the main point of your article was about the writing of laws, I still feel it is important to set the record straight about CFLs. I stand by my point that incandescents often emit more UV than do CFLs.
    The UV risk is well quantified here: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2829662/ . With respect to incandescents, this source states “Assuming eight hours of exposure per day, it would take close to two weeks to receive 1 SED” (SED stands for ‘standard erythema dose’). And for fluorescents, the same source states “assuming eight hours of exposure per day … it would take between eight days and six months to receive 1 SED, depending on the particular bulb”. So we see that CFLs can sometimes emit slightly more UV than an incandescent, but in other cases can emit considerably less. By way of comparison, “depending on the exact solar altitude, it takes between 5.4 and 33 minutes of sun exposure to receive 1 SED”. Clearly the dose of UV from indoor lighting, incandescent or fluorescent, is minimal when compared to normal sunlight.

  3. Doug says:

    Furthermore, I must respectfully disagree with your statement that CFLs represent “a certain solution which solved the energy problem, but was worse for the environment when considering the full lifecycle”. CFLs are not worse for the environment when considering the full lifecycle – far from it. They save huge amounts of mercury and other pollution from being emitted by fossil burning power plants; in comparison to incandescents. From that consideration alone CFLs more than pay for themselves when one balances the energy and other costs to manufacture them against the energy they save during their use.
    The law in question does not mandate the use of CFLs anyway – it merely mandates that any light must meet certain efficiency standards. One is free to choose LEDs or CFLs as desired (and even most halogens are permitted under the law). Only regular incandescents fail to meet the efficiency standard and are therefore not permitted under the new law.

  4. Jon says:

    Good article and analysis.

    The EPA lists mercury as a Hazardous Waste at 40 CFR 261

    http://www.ecfr.gov/cgi-bin/text-idx?c=ecfr&SID=a57100e08caa0c997a2b59f140f001c3&rgn=div8&view=text&node=40:27.0.1.1.2.3.1.5&idno=40

    For decades we have removed mercury from our environment, what sense does it make to allow it back in just so some corporations can cash in?

    • Doug says:

      CFLs REMOVE mercury from our environment. They accomplish that removal by consuming just one-quarter of the energy consumed by the bulbs they replace: incandescents. Since they consume so much less energy, they keep extra mercury out of the environment by causing a reduction in the amount of coal that is burned to produce that electricity. I repeat that burning coal is the main way that humans introduce mercury into the environment. And that mercury contained within the CFLs? – it is just a small fraction of the mercury release that is avoided by scaling back coal combustion.
      Every CFL that one buys and uses protects the environment from the mercury (and CO2) that would have been released to power the incandescent that was replaced.

      • gxtgreen says:

        HI Doug,
        You are missing the point of the blog. Wouldn’t you agree that LCDs are a better solution for our environment than either incandescents or CFLs? They are safe around the house and contain no mercury. Yet legislators and environmental groups jumped through so many hoops to set up a process to recycle CFLs and keep them out of the landfills, that they are not taking the extra step when LCDs became economically feasible. The same situation is occurring with plastic bag replacements, where there is a better solution now in non-toxic photodegradable bags such as ECOgrade, but laws are still written to only allow older bio-degradable technology. That’s the key issue, not whether CFL’s release less mercury than coal powered electrical generators.

  5. Doug says:

    The point of the blog was to complain that laws were written that exclusively favor CFLs over LEDs and over any other alternative; and to bemoan the same with respect to plastic bag alternatives. I stand by my rebuttal that the light bulb law does nothing of the sort – it merely mandates a minimum standard of efficiency. Any bulb that meets or exceeds that standard is acceptable; CFLs and LEDs both are permitted. With repect to the CFL example, the blog therefore takes a run at a false windmill. Futhermore, there is very little in the way of extra steps that widespread adoption of LEDs would require; therefore there seems to be little ground for complaint that legislators and environmental groups are somehow deficient with respect to LED adoption rates.
    Along the way, the blog also repeated some falshoods concerning CFLs; namely that they emit excessive UV and introduce excessive levels of mercury into the environment. I am merely trying to set the record straight with respect to both CFLs and the law.

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