A recent study by the World Watch Institute reports explosive sales growth in compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs. This is great news for the climate with a projected 40% reduction in global lighting demand and an estimated 17 billion tons of prevented CO2 emissions. But many experts and one grouchy puppet, are concerned about the growing threat of mercury.
All compact fluorescents contain small amounts of mercury. According to Leonard Robinson of the California EPA, 20 million light bulbs contain about 1.5 grams of mercury. That doesn't sound like a lot, but mercury can accumulate for decades and if not properly contained can work its way into the water table, contaminating municipal water supplies.
The WWI report points out that coal-burning power plants also emit significant quantities of mercury. If you compare a CFL with regular incandescent light bulb and you factor in the extra energy required over the life of the regular bulb, you have about the same amount of mercury released into the environment. But there is a difference. In the case of the CFL, the mercury is deposited directly into the ground in municipal waste sites. Coal-burning plants are usually located outside of municipal areas, so the mercury has some chance to dissipate.
For this reason, California has commenced an aggressive and creative "can-paign" featuring Oscar the Grouch, who explains that CFL's must be disposed of in special collectors located around the city that prevent the mercury from leaking. A 2006 California law actually enforces the special disposal of household electronic waste or "e-waste," but most consumers have never heard of the law or the reasons why a CFL is not like a typical light bulb.
The California EPA with the help of their fuzzy spokesperson are working closely with large retailers like Home Depot and IKEA to educate the consumer at the point of purchase. Right now, the immediate threat is low. CFL's usually last 5 years and some much longer, so the first wave of CFL's has not even hit the trash cans. But next year, when the first generation of bulbs sold back in 2002 are tossed, California is bracing for a significant toxic waste management issue.
Below is a short interview by Cohn & Wolfe with Leonard Robinson of Cal EPA explaining the issue and the need to bring together energy efficiency with waste management concerns: