Suburban Bureau

Are Fluorescents Really Better for the Environment?

Something tells me we are trying to be penny smart, but pound-foolish regarding light bulbs. The real problem is how we create our electricity to power our appliances.

By Trey Shaughnessy
Published September 11, 2008

Over the summer I had some fluorescent light tubes to be discarded. I phoned the city for a bulk garbage pick-up. The City operator told me that they don't accept fluorescent bulbs.

Why? I asked.

I was told that they are considered a hazardous waste material because they contain argon and mercury gases. This also applies to compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs.

I would have to drive them to the waste depot south of Rymal Road at Upper Ottawa.

I pointed out that driving my car is not very good for the environment.

I asked, What if I didn't have a car? I was told to take a bus - the Upper Ottawa bus loops at the waste depot.

I then asked if I would be allowed to take this hazardous material on a bus?

"Probably not," was the response.

So to dispose these fluorescent bulbs, I would need to strap these toxic gas-filled glass tubes to my back and take a bike ride to the far-flung waste depot, risking my own safety with the possibility of shards of glass becoming imbedded in my skin and inhaling mercury gas - or else drive a car and put more exhaust into the environment.

Penny-Wise, Pound-Foolish

It is my belief that automobile exhaust is worse for the environment then our household light bulbs. The 'Save a Ton' government awareness campaign used an online checklist of appliance and automobile use to give a score on how 'green' a home was.

The top of the list was automobile use, followed by clothes driers, refrigerators, hot water heaters and air conditioners, not surprisingly light bulb energy use was at the bottom of the list, just below televisions.

In fairness to fluorescent bulbs, they do use less energy, but incandescent bulbs were barely a significant factor in producing greenhouse gasses when compared to everything else.

Something tells me we are trying to be penny smart, but pound-foolish regarding light bulbs. The real problem is how we create our electricity to power our appliances.

Perhaps David Suzuki should have been telling everyone to drive less, hang our clothes outside to dry (in warm months anyway), try to tolerate hot summer days like we did in the 1970s and beyond and have cold showers.

Now if only our electricity was produced from solar or wind power, the incandescent versus fluorescent light argument would be moot. Perhaps we should be putting our green efforts where it counts.

Trey lives in Williamsville NY via Hamilton. He is a Marketing Manager for Tourism and Destination Marketing in the Buffalo-Niagara Metro.

His essays have appeared in The Energy Bulletin, Post Carbon Institute, Peak Oil Survival, and Tree Hugger.

And can't wait for the day he stops hearing "on facebook".

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By tinplate (anonymous) | Posted September 12, 2008 at 11:29:51

Trey: Why don't you walk to your closest Home Depot or Rona store where you may have bought your CFL bulb and drop it off for free. There are recycling bins and this is an example of product stewardship where a retailer takes responsibility for the end of life product.

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By Eureka (anonymous) | Posted September 12, 2008 at 11:43:47

This problem will go away once white LED lights hit the mainstream. They're about the same energy use (maybe a bit better) as CFL, last several times longer and are not toxic waste when you throw them out.

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By Ted Mitchell (registered) | Posted September 12, 2008 at 14:23:31

There are feel-good green changes, and real ones. It isn't the amount of energy saved that distinguishes them, but connections.

CFL's are feel-good, but just an engineering tradeoff. Usually worth doing, but not without problems.

Real changes, like not having a clothes dryer have long reaching positive consequences and get you thinking about related issues. Like, extra space in the house. Clothes hanging on the line as art. Or they smell fresher and last longer. Or, I'd love to do that but can't because somebody has their fireplace smoking up the neighbourhood on a nice warm day.

We need way more of the real changes. They will all be grassroots, because the marketplace is heavily biased towards feel-good green tech.

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By ventrems (registered) | Posted September 23, 2008 at 08:40:51

no clothes dryer? come on. how is someone living in an apartment/condo supposed to dry their clothes without making their place look like a dry cleaner's. there are solutions to our energy/carbon problems without returning to the stone age.

CFL bulbs represent such a solution. they are not a feel good change, they are a real change. they offer substantial improvements in energy efficiency over traditional bulbs. they have been widely adopted and will contribute to significant reductions in energy consumption in the average home.

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By A (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2008 at 08:40:52

no clothes dryer? come on. how is someone living in an apartment/condo supposed to dry their clothes without making their place look like a dry cleaner's. there are solutions to our energy/carbon problems without returning to the stone age.

CFL bulbs represent such a solution. they are not a feel good change, they are a real change. they offer substantial improvements in energy efficiency over traditional bulbs. they have been widely adopted and will contribute to significant reductions in energy consumption in the average home.

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By Cedric (anonymous) | Posted September 23, 2008 at 09:42:48

I live in an apartment and hang my clothes to dry. I hang them on my shower curtain holder and I assure you, my apartment doesn't look like a dry cleaners. In the winter, the clothes dry very quickly in the hot, dry air and it actually helps humidify my apartment so I don't have to use electricity running a humidifier.

I don't live in the "stone age" either.

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By Frank (registered) | Posted September 26, 2008 at 11:11:44

Cedric, I've tried that but in the summer I don't run an a/c which means that they don't dry in the summer which so happens to be a time of peak electrical use as well. I'm sorry, but I use CFL bulbs and I have no problem bringing them to HD to drop off. One problem is that I don't have any to drop off, they're all still working! I love the post about LEDs. I volunteer working with stage and theatre lighting and love LEDs because the venue I use doesn't have a lot of "extra" power hanging around. They're cool, quiet and energy efficient. Can't wait to see more of them at a better cost...

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