One thing that has always bothered me about being an environmentalist is that there is never enough good information available to the consumer allowing them to make intelligent decisions. Case in point … what kind of lightbulbs to use in the house to reduce the total carbon footprint and to be generally green.
For years now, we have been asked to consider moving to compact fluorescent lightbulbs because they last longer and they are far more efficient than the incandescent bulbs we have used for the last hundred years or so.
I jumped on this bandwagon at least 30 years ago when I had to pay over $20 per 7W bulb and I have seen lots of savings in energy costs. But have I really been such a green citizen? That isn’t a rhetorical question…I really want to know. At least one site on the web tells me that I may have actually been hurting the planet with my move to CF bulbs. The GreenMuze blog published an article in 2009 entitled “the Dark Side of CFLs” that casts serious doubts about the claims made by CF vendors and questions the idea of banning incandescent bulbs in 2014. The article looks at the costs of manufacturing these bulbs and the environmental impact of having tons of mercury released into the environment as these bulbs reach the end of their useful life. Natural Resources Canada (NRCAN) has published a Pollution Probe report on Mercury toxicity from CF bulbs that can be found here, and a second article can be found on the Environment Canada website that deals with Municipal Actions to Reduce Mercury in the Great Lakes Basin.
Then there is the “efficiency” question when it comes to incandescent bulbs. Yes, they are cheaper to produce, but they burn out faster so you need more bulbs to provide the same light over the same period, increasing the production costs. But how much does it cost to produce each bulb and is it enough to overcome the added production costs for CF bulbs? Furthermore, when you use a CF bulb in the winter, the heat produced by the bulb isn’t lost…it suppliments the heating of spaces, presumably reducing the need to heat them otherwise. So for indoor applications in the winter, maybe having an incandescent bulb is useful.
Another article that I have read recently looks at the cradle to grave costs of LED lamps as replacements for street lamps. The upshot of the article is that the technology is a definite benefit to the environment, but it points out that these lights are hard to recycle due to the need to include mini-IC boards that are hard to recycle at the end of the product’s life.
What I would like to see is some really good analysis by government, universities, industry and environmental groups that gave us basic information for each option such as:
1. What are the costs of production per 1000 lumen-hours of lighting(energy, component cost (oils for plastic bases), human costs (mercury poisoning in production workers), etc.?
2. What is the cost of transportation per 1000 lumen-hours of lighting for each technology. Where are the bulbs produced and where are they consumed and how much energy is consumed getting them to market.
3. What toxins are used in the manufacture or produced during use and disposal.
4. What are the energy costs per 1000 lumen-hours associated with the use of each technology?
5. How much heat is generated during the production of each lumen of light for each 1000 lumen-hours? This amount can be a benefit or a cost depending upon when and where the bulbs are used.
6. What are the performance criteria for the bulbs (do they produce the same quality of light, and do they work in the same conditions).
7. What are the costs of disposal for each bulb? This includes the recyclability of the product components, the management of any toxins that are produced in the disposal stream and other factors.
I’m sure that there is a lot of research going on in this area, but what seems to be missing are peer-reviewed sites that summarizing the credible research in the area and produce articles for consumption by the masses.
I know that I would love to find such a site to help me decide how best to reduce my impact on the planet, and I’ll bet that if you are still reading this post, you’d love to too.