Mr. Green's July 1, 2007, Mailbag Rants, raves, and righteous ideas from our readers
Mr. Green loves hearing from his readers, whether they think he's a green guru or an eco-idiot. Periodically, he'll post some of his favorite exchanges online. To join an ongoing debate--or start a new one--e-mail email@example.com.
Pox on Fox
Hey Mr. Green,
My whole family had embraced the concept of
bulbs (because they are so efficient), but a negative report from Fox
News about their mercury hazards has us a little confused. Can you respond
to our concern? --Carl in Center Moriches, New York
you for calling my attention to this hatchet job, which I never would have
noticed because I try to avoid the right-wing contrivances that Fox peddles
as fair and balanced.
The people at Fox News are either brain-damaged from
huffing mercury (they do seem to have a fondness for the highly
toxic) or they have unscrupulously cherry-picked their facts. (In their
sniping about the rules to replace incandescents with compact fluorescents
[CFLs] "either adopted or being considered in California, Canada, the
European Union and Australia," it's surprising that they overlooked the
bulb-replacement programs in Cuba and
Venezuela. That would've given them a fine opportunity to present compact
fluorescent bulbs as part of a communist takeover.)
This classic example of
enviro-bashing is full of flaws. First, the Fox writer trots out one report
of one environmental bureaucrat's overreaction to a bulb breakage to make it
sound like a busted CFL will turn a house into a Superfund site. The fact
is, CFLs do contain mercury, but nowhere near enough to provoke panic or
evacuation. If you break a bulb, you can do the cleanup yourself, without
renting a moon suit or contacting authorities.
Open a window and leave the
room for at least 15 minutes (to let the mercury vaporize).
all materials (i.e., the pieces of the broken bulb) without using a
vacuum cleaner. You don't want even a small amount of mercury lurking
in your vacuum. To do so:
Wear disposable rubber gloves, if
available. (Never touch the bulb pieces with your bare hands.)
Carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or
cardboard (you don't want the stuff to get on your broom or dustpan
Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or disposable wet
Sticky tape, such as duct tape (yet another use for the versatile
material!), can be used to pick up small pieces and powder.
cleanup materials in a plastic bag and seal it. If your state
permits you to put used or broken CFLs in the garbage, seal the CFL in two
plastic bags and put into the outside trash (if no other disposal or
recycling options are available). If your state doesn't allow this,
consult the local hazardous-waste authority for safe-recycling information.
Some hardware stores will also accept old bulbs; to find a recycler near
you, try Earth 911,
or (800) CLEAN-UP, for a location near you.
Wash your hands after
disposing of the bag.
The first time you vacuum the area where the bulb
was broken, remove the vacuum bag once done cleaning the area (or empty and
wipe the canister) and put the bag and/or vacuum debris, as well as the
cleaning materials, in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or
protected outdoor location for normal disposal.
So much for that part of
Fox's story, but I'm not quite done with calling them on their hokum. So
read on, if you wish.
The Fox piece chides environmentalists for
contradicting themselves by promoting fluorescent lightbulbs while having
"whipped up so much fear of mercury among the public that many local
governments have even launched mercury thermometer exchange programs" and
going "berserk at the thought of mercury being emitted from power plants."
Yes, as Fox notes, a fluorescent bulb contains around 5 milligrams
of mercury (although some brands, such as Philips Lighting, claim their
bulbs have as little as 1.23 to 3 milligrams). What Fox conveniently
doesn't bother to mention is that a thermometer can contain
140 times as much mercury as a fluorescent lightbulb, making concern about
these instruments eminently reasonable. Nor is it exactly going "berserk" to
worry about mercury from power plants. Coal-burning power
plants emit 50 tons of the stuff every year, around 40 percent of the total
mercury emissions in the United States.
Since residential lighting accounts
for about 5.7 percent of our total national electricity consumption--about
half of which is generated by coal--creating power for home lighting
releases about 1.4 tons of mercury every year. And since incandescent bulbs
account for about 88 percent of all bulbs, they are responsible for emitting
around 1.2 tons of mercury a year.
Let's imagine for a moment that all 4
billion residential lightbulbs have become CFLs, each one with an average
life span of 5.5 years (the minimum for EPA-approved bulbs). That means we'd
have to change about 727 million fluorescent bulbs a year. At five milligrams of
mercury per bulb, that adds up to about four tons of mercury. Since
fluorescents use only 25 percent as much energy as incandescents, installing
them in all houses would decrease mercury emissions from power plants by 0.9
tons a year.
So even in the incredibly unlikely scenario that every single
dead bulb were smashed, and its contents released into the environment,
switching to CFLs would yield a maximum 3.1 tons of mercury each year--the 4
tons in them minus the 0.9 tons of emissions they offset. (If all bulbs used
were the longer-lived models, with a life span of nine years, the net
emission would drop to 1.9 tons annually even if not a single bulb got
recycled. And as lower-mercury bulbs came online, the net release would drop
Fox simply ignores the fact that people don't have to throw away
all those burned-out fluorescents in the first place. About 25 percent are
already being recycled, just because the government requires
businesses to do so. If consumers were better educated about compact
fluorescents, they would recycle more of them, as they have learned to do
with other materials. If we created an economic incentive--a stiff deposit
on CFLs, for example--recycling rates would vastly increase, just as they
have with cans and bottles in states where container deposits are
Of course, by focusing on mercury, Fox also fails to note that
even the shorter-lived fluorescents would eliminate about 100 million tons
of carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants alone, and an
equivalent amount of other pollutants. That's something to weigh heavily
even against the heavy metal mercury.
Beating a Dead Bulb
Hey Mr. Green,
I've been told that although compact fluorescent
lightbulbs require much less electricity than incandescents to stay
lit--making them generally more energy efficient--the surge of electric
current they draw to light up can make incandescents the thriftier choice
where lights are left on only briefly (such as in a stairway). True? And if
so, roughly how long does a light need to stay on for a fluorescent bulb to
be the better option? --Richard in Trumansburg, New York
Richard, I've addressed
this question before, but will do so again and again until the entire world
understands that the power surge needed to ignite a compact fluorescent
lightbulb is very brief and uses only as much electricity as that bulb would
require in five seconds of regular operation. Since a fluorescent uses only
one-fourth to one-third as much energy as an incandescent, this means that
it takes less than two seconds for the fluorescent to surpass the
incandescent in efficiency.
One technicality, however (darn these
exceptions): If you leave a room and are going to return in less than 15
minutes, it's probably best to leave the fluorescent on. This is because
turning fluorescents off and on at short intervals can decrease the
life of the bulb. So, for brief intervals, as in your stairwell example, an
incandescent could possibly be the better choice, not because of the energy
savings, but because you'd want your more expensive fluorescents to live
long enough to make them cost-effective and give you the maximum possible
return on your investment.
Speaking of fluorescents' life spans, when they
do burn out, make sure you recycle them properly
(again, try Earth 911 or
800-CLEAN-UP), because, as detailed above, fluorescents contain tiny amounts
of mercury, which is very toxic. Just don't make a special trip in a car to
recycle a bulb, or you might offset its energy savings!
Get on the Bus
Hey Mr. Green,
My biggest peeves with our school
district are its irresponsibility with money and its poor priorities. Within
the last bunch of years, the district rebuilt and renovated all its
schools--the high school, the junior high, and eight elementary
schools--built a new administration building, Astroturfed the football field
and rubberized the track, and put a totally new HVAC system in the high
school. Yet nothing was done regarding traffic flow.
Although busing is
mandatory for kids in the third grade and below, students at the junior high
and senior high must live two or three miles, respectively, from the school
to get bus transportation. No city bus passes are provided. Hence, many
parents transport their kids by car. The traffic is horrendous, and the
amount of gas being wasted on a daily basis is even worse. Think there's a
little hole in the ozone layer over our district? --Sue in Rochester, New
I don't blame you for being upset. Of course, if I were
running the district with my green iron fist, I'd require all those lazy,
pampered kids to walk or bike to school, like in the old days.
They'd probably shed more of their junk-food-and-soda blubber with that
routine than they would shuffling around the freshly rubberized track, and
they'd be having creative conversations and flirtations on the way home
instead of getting to the couch quicker and snacking away while stunting
their little brains with TV, video games, or the institutionalized
narcissism of MySpace.
However, since such a healthy reform would be
considered child abuse in today's overmonitored world, I recommend that you
estimate how many total miles parents have to drive to haul the kids to
school. Then multiply the mileage by 52 cents, which is the average cost of
car operation according to the American Automobile Association. Next,
compute the total time parents spend on these daily trips during the school
year, and multiply it by the average hourly wage in your town. Then add
these two amounts and compare them to the cost of extra school buses,
drivers, and fuel.
I don't know what result you'll come up with, but I have
a strong suspicion that the price of individual car
transportation--including both operating costs and time--will greatly exceed
that of buses for these kids. People are often amazed when presented with
costs of automobiles--and that's not even considering the health and
environmental toll of the emissions from all those traffic-clogged cars.
you aren't inclined to dig up the data and make these calculations yourself,
then you should demand that the school district's bean counters do so. Given
the amount of money they've been allocating, they must know something about
number crunching, even if they're doing it as recklessly as you say. If the
numbers work out like I think they will, the next step is to use this data
to lobby the district to make buses more widely
Views expressed by readers may not reflect those of Mr. Green or Sierra magazine. Reader suggestions have not been researched or tested.
Read more advice from Mr. Green, including his Web-only mailbag, and submit your own environmental questions at sierraclub.org/mrgreen.
Mr. Green illustration by Melinda Beck; used with permission.