Posted by: bridget | 1 May 2007

Compact Fluorescent Lights: Another Debacle in the Making

Compact fluorescent light bulbs are touted as the great earth-friendly alternative to traditional incandescent light bulbs. CFLs are more expensive than traditional light bulbs but use approximately 1/5th the energy of traditional light bulbs. Over a few years, the higher cost of a CFL is recouped roughly five times over in electricity savings. For those reasons, California is considering a wholesale ban of the bulbs (previously blogged here).

Regardless of whether the government should really be in the business of banning certain forms of lighting (a free market will encourage the production of energy-efficient technology), CFLs are not as environmentally friendly as their advocates would have use believe. Notably, each CFL bulb contains approximately 4 mg of mercury.

Advocates claim that, as power plants emit mercury in the production of electricity, incandescent light bulbs are responsible for more mercury production than CFLs. They miss a larger point, however: when a power plant emits mercury, the plant designers have the ability and the expertise to contain those emissions and treat the consolidated waste accordingly. It is not sensible, however, for the government to chase around consumers to mop up 4 mg of mercury each time someone breaks a light bulb or throws it in the trash: this mercury will inevitably end up in the environment. Essentially, this is the same argument behind electric cars: when pollution is contained in one area, it is much easier to control and clean up. Given how few people recycle batteries, it stretches credibility to claim that consumers will recycle CFLs so that the mercury may be recovered.

Years from now, millions of CFLs will leach mercury into the environment; California may reconsider its ill-conceived ban.  After all, we already  have trade-in programmes for mercury thermometers. What will not happen, however, is for the enviro-Nazis to suggest nuclear power – or any other sensible method – as a clean way of generating electricity.

EDIT: Sunday School Teacher sent along an article about a Maine family that spent over $2,000 to clean up a mercury spill after accidentally breaking a CFL.



  1. I knew there had to be a catch!

  2. Good analysis. Beware the law of unintended consequences. Do these folks know how to think two moves ahead?

  3. I just read a story about a $2000 clean up bill after breaking one of these in a bed room.

  4. As much as it kills me to admit, you make an excellent point about the CFLs. Its ridiculous to expect people to a) not break them (and suffer the fate of the poor girl in SST’s post), or b) take them to a special recycling center. I live in a small town, with almost no facilities, and its like pulling teeth to get people to recycle (I am one of those people that rarely recycle because of the hassle).

    I applaud many of CA’s “experiments,” but given the few articles I’ve read CFLs do sound pretty, pretty retarded. Light bulbs should be left to the market.

  5. LOL, TotalTransformation! :) Of course there is a catch.

  6. Neil,

    I wish they knew how to think two moves ahead… or even one move ahead. We might have nuclear power if they did. ;)

  7. Sunday School Teacher,

    That’s horrible. :( So much for “cost savings” with lower electricity bills.

    Good info. I’m adding it to the original post as an edit, because that should really be front and center.

  8. Dying,

    Dahlin, of course there aren’t recycling facilities in Lexington! Really, what’s the point of rounding up four or five newspapers every week?

    Light bulbs should be left to the market.

    EXACTLY! “Get the government out of living rooms” or something to that effect. Anyone want to make bumper stickers?

  9. The people that come up with policy such as this probably mean well.They unfortunately don’t think ahead. That leaves me wishing I was a capable artist.I’d make a picture of someone with a CFL over their head (bright idea)leaking mercury.(very bad idea)
    I came across a post today from Ca.that has a video embed that takes a look at this issue.

  10. the link in question

  11. […] Also of note is a good post at Helvidius, a Pachyderm. […]

  12. see it started at the park,used to chill after dar. Corrina Eudora.

  13. that’s why it will never wor. Merrill Amram.

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