How many congressmen does it take to screw in a light bulb?

Alexis Levinson Political Reporter
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If not disposed of properly, CFL light bulbs, which Congress is pushing as a preferable and energy efficient alternative to incandescent bulbs, may poison you, contaminate your food and water supply, destroy the environment and kill your children.

If light bulbs were regulated like cigarettes, this is what it might say on the side of the box of “environmentally friendly” bulbs that you just picked up at Target.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 banned almost all use of incandescent bulbs (the normal looking ones that pop up over cartoon characters’ heads in moments of brilliance) by 2014. They are to be replaced by more energy efficient bulbs. Currently, for lack of better technology, CFLs are the heir apparent.

According to the EPA’s website, CFLs “[use] about 75 percent less energy than standard incandescent bulbs and [last] up to 10 times longer.” So if you still secretly want to be Captain Planet — which, let’s face it, we all do — it seems like the right product choice to go about being a hero and taking pollution down to zero.

Here’s the problem: CFLs contain mercury, which, in high concentrations, is poisonous. When a bulb is in use, it’s a non-issue, since the mercury is safely contained in the glass tubes. But when a light bulb comes to the end of its life, whether by natural or violent causes, things get tricky.

If a light bulb breaks, as The Daily Caller reported last week, you basically have to call out the HAZMAT team.  Sometimes, light bulbs simply fizzle out and die. At which point you probably climb up on a ladder, unscrew the bulb, replace it with another one, and dump the old one in a trash can.

No matter how careful you are, somewhere between your kitchen and the landfill, breakage is inevitable.  Says Rick Cochrane of Waste Management, “it’s going to break in an uncontrolled environment somewhere,” and that puts people in danger — the garbage man, the janitor, your dog who sticks its head in the trash can looking for food — and it also contaminates the environment. According to the EPA, “Even very small amounts … can accumulate and cause environmental problems. Such environmental contamination can linger for decades”

“Because the amount in each bulb is so low,” Paul Abernathy, executive director of Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers, says, “people tend to not really think of that as a huge environmental crisis. However, because there are so many bulbs that are broken that way — we have estimated that there may be more than 500 million bulbs that are broken that way — so it does add up to a significant amount of mercury.”

The takeaway is that, if you like to eat fish, drink water or breathe in areas where there are trash cans, it’s in your best interest to recycle a CFL. If you don’t know how, there websites that can help you out. Earth 911comes highly recommended: The website functions as a database that can help you locate the nearest recycling facility that takes CFLs. Recycle-a-bulb has a similar feature.

Did you know any of those sites existed? Neither did we. More importantly, what would have motivated you to go look for them?

This is the fundamental problem with CFL disposal: The information is there, but it has not been adequately publicized, and there’s no motivation to go out and find it.

According to the EPA, they have been working with manufacturers and vendors to promote CFL recycling, as well as providing for the “development and implementation of mercury lamp recycling outreach programs.  Grant recipients implemented highly visible outreach programs to promote proper recycling of mercury-containing lamps.”

While praise for CFLs is easy to find on the EPA’s website instructions on how to dispose of them are not on the CFL page; rather, they can be found in the “Mercury” section of the EPA’s website, a placement that requires you to know that CFLs contain mercury in the first place.

Manufacturers post warnings on the boxes of bulbs, but who actually reads instructions — especially on something as self-explanatory as a light bulb? Besides, Abernathy points out, even if you do, are you really going to remember them five years down the line when the bulb finally burns out?

Perhaps as a result, the danger posed by exposure to mercury simply doesn’t seem to be on the radar. Thom Metzger, director of communications at NSWMA, the trade association representing people who collect garbage, told TheDC, “I’m somewhat less concerned about a mercury release; I’m more concerned about someone getting cut [by glass].”

As if there weren’t enough problems already, recycling CFLs is expensive, both for the consumer, who has to go out and find a recycling drop off, or shell out $16.95 for Waste Management’s Think Green Home Recycling Kit, and for the people who do the recycling. “There’s not enough value in the recovered materials,” says Cochrane. “In fact there’s a net cost.”

Lastly, there is simply no way to force people to recycle CFLs. Even if there’s a law requiring it, as in California, how can you make sure people comply, short of installing hidden cameras and picking through people’s trash?

At what point do the costs outweigh the benefits?  How many people does it take throwing CFL bulbs into landfills before the amount of mercury contamination is so harmful that the energy savings aren’t worth it?

It’s a question no one seems to be able answer.  Until they can, pick your poison.