PROS AND CONS OF ENERGY EFFICIENT LIGHTING
By: Diane Henry
Originally Published: September, 2007
As more and more people switch over to the environmentally friendly compact fluorescent light bulbs concerns over their disposal have been raised because they contain mercury. The general manager of the Fundy Region Solid Waste Commission says the Household Hazardous Waste Materials Program has been very successful in diverting the bulbs from the landfill.
“I think the Fundy region population has been very receptive with lots of participation, and I think that’s what’s important,” said Mark MacLeod. He says the one-year-old program has already diverted more than 50,000 litres of liquid hazardous waste from the landfill.
Compact fluorescent light bulbs use only a fraction of the energy incandescent light bulbs use, and generate more light while lasting several times longer. “The issue with mercury in compact fluorescent light bulbs is that mercury is an element, it’s at its lowest point so it doesn’t degrade,” said MacLeod. “It’s always there. We just don’t want it in our waste.
“Right now what we ask people to do is collect their goods like paint, fuel, oil and batteries, and to try to collect them all into one big collection and come to our site and drop them off.”
If mercury is such a problem in landfills, why not make it easier for users to safely dispose of the potentially harmful light bulbs? MacLeod says it’s not an easy process because they are considered hazardous waste. “So to set up remote sites requires special permitting.”
That means, users can’t just take the bulbs back to the retailer, producer or even Saint John Energy when they burn out---a shorter commute for most than heading out to the landfill.
MacLeod says it comes down to a government loop hole that prohibits the Fundy Region Solid Waste Commission from transporting the light bulbs from a remote site back to the Hazardous Waste Materials Program at the landfill. “We fully support the cfl’s because they are great for the environment,” he said. “We just want to see the government close the loop by addressing the disposal of those items.”
The provincial Department of Environment recently met with the Solid Waste Association and Efficiency New Brunswick to come up with a game plan. “We need to be proactive on this, recognizing that 2012 is the date incandescent light bulbs will no longer be available,” said Mark Bolden, Manager of Bioscience and Resource Management with the Department of Environment.
The federal government has set 2012 as a deadline for moving completely from incandescent light bulbs to compact fluorescent light bulbs. Bolden says the waste commissions in New Brunswick are all handling the new energy efficient bulbs differently, and now they want to bring the differing methods together to come up with a common approach for safe disposal.
“What we would prefer to do, if we could, is divert all of that through the use of a stewardship program,” said MacLeod, “that would be great.”
Environmentalist David Thompson argues disposal of these light bulbs is not a big problem right now because they last five to seven years. “People are just beginning to use them now because they’ve just come on the market, and I’m sure industry will be producing bulbs very soon with little or no mercury in them. So, the bulbs here now in the market place are not an emergency factor because of their long life. We’re not seeing hoards of them coming to the landfill every day.”
The amount of coal needed to burn a regular light bulb produces more mercury than is in a compact fluorescent light bulb. “It appears that the amount of energy saved will reduce the amount of mercury given out at generation plants,” Thompson said.
The industry has actually reduced the amount of mercury in the compact fluorescent light bulbs over the last number of years, and Bolden believes it may fall on industry to reduce it more and make the bulbs as environmentally friendly as possible. “I think ultimately the responsibility will fall on the industry to manage something that they are producing.”
Thompson easily agrees, “I don’t think it will be very long before the matter of traces of mercury being found in these bulbs will be resolved and it [mercury] won’t be in the bulbs any longer.”
For now, waste commissions across the province are struggling to deal with the number of hazardous waste products, such as compact fluorescent light bulbs, that are being put in with regular garbage. “In one household it’s not dangerous to have that light there,” said MacLeod. “It’s not dangerous to have two, three or four; where it becomes dangerous is if we have all of those lights in one area, and of course one area could be the landfill.”
In the past there was no effort to segregate household hazardous materials such as small cell batteries from going into the landfill, and up until recently those contained a lot of mercury, hundreds of times as much mercury as one cfl would contain.
“So, we already probably have a much higher concentration of mercury there then we would ever get from all of the fluorescent light bulbs currently out there in the market,” said Thompson.
Bolden says there is still work to be done in the province as far as working with the commissions and Efficiency NB. He says the province has another meeting planned in the next couple of months to look at this issue again. For now, the Department of Environment will hold discussions with the Solid Waste Association to come up with a common message or a common approach for right across the province in dealing with all household hazardous waste.
“Mercury is in a lot of places in the environment, unfortunately,” said Thompson.
**Side Note: This article was written four years ago, which means the life span of these compact fluorescent light bulbs is nearing their end. That means the landfills will soon be seeing a lot more of them and their mercury.