Editorial: The Afterlife of a CFL

January 04, 2008
January/February 2008
A version of this article appears in the January/February 2008 issue of Home Energy Magazine.
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The CFL is a poster child for energy efficiency but sometimes in ways that we might not want it to be.  To be sure, the CFL has a wonderful record of constantly improving quality, applicability, and reliability all the while falling in price. After faithfully saving consumers electricity for 6,000 hours, the CFL eventually flickers out and must be thrown away.  That’s where the adventure begins. CFLs contain minute amounts of mercury, which qualifies them as hazardous waste (see “Understanding CFLs,” HE Nov/Dec ’07, p. 30).

In most communities this means CFLs must be taken to special sites. Here’s what one New Jersey family—early converts to compact fluorescents—found when they tried to dispose of a decade’s worth of CFLs. Princeton Township regards CFLs as hazardous waste and will not accept them. The (Mercer) County Improvement Authority’s recycling Web site just points to a Pennsylvania firm, which uses Fedex to recycle the bulbs. That might be reasonable for large businesses, but it’s expensive and inconvenient for individual households.  The local lamp store refers inquiries to a company in Edison, New Jersey, but they serve only neighboring Middlesex County and charge non-residents $6 per lb to recycle CFLs.  Mercer County’s Autumn 2007 Hazardous Waste Day literature did not specifically mention fluorescents as acceptable, and phone inquiries asking about this weren’t answered. The simplest option appears to be taking the expired CFLs to New York City, where there is no state or local law prohibiting residents from placing CFLs in the trash. 

In California, my nearest disposal site is 13 miles away (through one of the worst traffic jams in the United States) and is open for just 4 hours per day on 3 days per week.  

We know how most people will respond in such frustrating situations: they take the path of least resistance.  In this case, those CFLs are going into a landfill, despite the prohibitions.  (A few environmentally minded consumers are slowly filling their garages with old CFLs, which creates another kind of hazard.)

I must confess that I pooh-poohed the mercury hazard when I first heard about it.  Come on, I thought, let’s look at the huge benefits from reduced emissions compared to the tiny contribution to landfills. This was a no-brainer as far as I was concerned and I wanted to promote the next new energy efficiency measure. But the lack of proper disposal options for CFLs makes mercury a problem that won’t go away no matter the cut in other dangerous pollution.

I wasn’t the only one to ignore the problem. Utilities, government agencies, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and even Wal-Mart were blind sided by the unpleasant reality of mercury in CFLs. To date, almost everybody from the federal government down to your town’s waste agency ducked the problem and offered useless pabulum like, “Check with your local or municipal government entity responsible for solid waste or household hazardous waste collection. You can also visit http://www.epa.gov/bulbrecycling/ to research your own state’s disposal laws and recycling programs.”  If you undertake this “research” and follow the multiple Internet links, you will eventually discover that no convenient disposal opportunities exist in many communities.

So what should be done?  First, it’s worth remembering that many organizations have developed fabulously successful strategies for convincing people to purchase CFLs. We need to harness these same delivery mechanisms to recover the used CFLs. Any institution distributing CFLs must also accept them for disposal. (Clever marketers should realize that this gives them a wonderful opportunity to sell consumers another CFL.)  A few firms, such as Ikea, already collect CFLs, but they remain the exception.

In the future, there needs to be symmetry between the ease of acquiring a product and the ease of safely disposing of it. This problem will be arising with increasing frequency, from batteries to tires to electronic equipment. In the meantime I fear that part of my garage will serve as a temporary hazardous waste holding facility—not a problem I can ignore for long.
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