Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Fluorescent Bulbs - Dimmers and Mercury

Back in April 2007 I did a brief post on moving to fluorescent light bulbs. We've been changing to the fluorescent bulbs as the old ones burn out. But the one over our kitchen table burned out pretty fast. I thought they were supposed to last longer. Well, I put in a new new. Several days later as I was sitting at the table, there was a poof sound and the light went out.

I mentioned this to someone who does maintenance stuff and it came out that most fluorescent light bulbs DO NOT work with dimmer switches. So I started looking for fluorescents that are ok for dimmer switches. Costco didn't have them. Fred Meyer didn't have them. I called Lowe's. They had them. But I couldn't find them. A very nice sales woman was sure she had seen them, but she didn't seem to have any more knowledge about where they were than I did. She asked another salesperson who said they were "right here" but a women had bought them all and was headed to Wasilla to buy all the ones they had.

I thought that a bit weird, but who was I to question him. The nice saleswoman took me to the info counter where the lady shrugged her shoulders. "I'll look it up in the computer for you if you have a few minutes" the nice salesperson said. I wandered to
the garden shop and when I came back with some cyclamen (pink) and kalenchoe (yellow,) she was waiting for me just around the corner from where we were looking. The whole end of the shelf was dimmable fluorescents.

But there was one more issue. These things have mercury and you aren't supposed to just throw them out. So what do you do? As I was researching this, I also was reminded that batteries have mercury too. From a Lawrence, Kansas recycling site:

Developing awareness of household batteries and their current use is essential to understanding the importance of this collection program. The following list provides facts about battery use and its impact on our solid waste stream:

  • 2.5 billion dry cell batteries are sold in the US each year
  • An estimated 530,000 pounds of batteries require disposal daily
  • Americans own over 900 million battery operated devices
  • The average household batteries accounted for 89% of the mercury in the municipal solid waste stream
  • Alkaline and carbon-zinc batteries are the most common types of batteries consumed, comprising 90-93% of all batteries in the residential waste stream
  • In a recent EPA study, nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) rechargeable batteries were found to contribute over 50% of the cadmium in the waste stream
An Anchorage Daily News online post - is this on the recycling and renewables blog? can't tell for sure - from March 2008 written by Kevin Harun says:

Improper disposal of fluorescent lamps includes discarding them in the trash and intentional crushing. Improper disposal of fluorescent lights may eventually make its way into soils and water bodies. When the lamp is crushed, the mercury expels into the air and may contaminate the surrounding area.

If a lamp is crushed, intentionally or unintentionally, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) strongly recommends that people present leave the area for at least 15 minutes.

Proper disposal of fluorescent lamps is as follows: Once the lamp is removed, place the lamp in original packaging or a long cardboard box. Do no tape the lamps together. Store them in a dry place.

Once you are ready to dispose of them, bring them to Total Reclaim, Inc in the Huffman Business Park. Total Reclaim, Inc. will charge 18 cents per linear foot for them to be properly disposed of. Total Reclaim may be reached by calling 561-0544.
Types of lamps to look out for:
• Fluorescent – Straight, circular, or U-tubes
• High Intensity Discharge (HID) lamps
• “Green Tip” or “low mercury” lamps
• Neon lamps, and
• Any other lamps that may contain mercury, lead, and high pressure sodium.

What's wrong with this solution? It gives people these personal costs:
a. storing their used bulbs
b. taking them to the Huffman Business Park
c. paying someone to take your bulbs
for basically communal gain
a. reducing mercury (and other) contamination

The Municipality is relying on people's concern for the public good to do the right thing. Certainly, there are people who will do this. But all the costs are personal and the rewards are communal- keeping mercury out of the landfill. OK, I guess knowing you did something good for the community for some people is a personal reward.

But it's so much easier to just dump the bulb into your garbage bag and have Solid Waste people pick it up.

This is a case of the bulb companies being inefficient - using economic terms - because their product has externalities (polluting the environment) that we have to pay for which they don't have to consider in their costs. (An externality is a cost that is passed on to the community and does not show up in the cost or price of the item, so the manufacturer makes a profit by having everyone else subsidize the costs of cleaning-up his garbage. This is one of the problems with the market that even classical economists identify.)

So ideally, the manufacturers find a way to make an efficient light bulb without using mercury or other toxic materials. But until that day, they should be charged a recycling fee high enough to recover the mercury in the bulbs. It could be used by the Municipality to pay people to bring in their old light bulbs and perhaps a little bonus to make it worth their while to drive to the recycle place. In communities with poor folk, the collection of such recyclables with return deposits (like aluminum cans) is often done by the poor who can raise money this way and clean the environment.

So, I now have a dimmable fluorescent light bulb ($11 - yikes!) and when I'm done with it, I get to pay someone to take it off my hands.

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