What environmental purchase worries you most? If you’re anything like the hundreds of women I’ve met during my speaking engagements this month, it’s compact fluorescent light bulbs. Why? Because they contain a minuscule amount of mercury.
But let’s back up a minute.
I’ve criss-crossed the country over the last few weeks as the featured “green living” expert at the Texas Conference for Women, Toyota’s “In the Interest of Women” Conference, and the American Bankers Association Annual Convention, where I spoke to spouses of convention attendees.
Many of the people I met were startled to learn that women collectively spend eighty-five cents of every dollar in the marketplace. They were even more energized by the idea that they could use their economic clout to force manufacturers to produce eco-products. Which brings us back to the light bulb. Women want a better, safer bulb.
In every one of the seven seminars I’ve given over the last three weeks, women have expressed reservations about buying energy-efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs. Some women say they just won’t buy them until the mercury is completely removed. Others said they bought the bulbs, took them home, couldn’t bear to install them, and returned them to the store.
What women don’t know is how little mercury the bulbs contain, especially compared to the alternative: the mercury emitted by coal-fired power plants when they create electricity to power incandescent light bulbs. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, CFLs contain an average of 5 milligrams – about the amount that would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. (By comparison, older thermometers contain about 500 milligrams of mercury. It would take 100 CFLs to equal that amount.) Coal-fired power plants generate twice as much mercury to keep incandescent light bulbs burning.
Bulb manufacturers have committed to reducing mercury in bulbs by the end of 2007. Neolite, an Energy Star-certified company, already manufactures a bulb that contains only 1 milligram of mercury, yet still uses up to 75% less energy than an incandescent lamp. Efficient LEDs (light emitting diodes) do not contain any mercury at all.
Of course, you can help prevent any of the mercury in the bulb from escaping into the environment by handling it properly. Be somewhat careful when taking the bulb out of its packaging. Hold it by its base – not the glass -- when screwing and unscrewing it. For more handling tips, see http://earth911.org/mercury/. Rather than throw CFLs in the trash when they burn out (which won’t be for 7-10 years), contact www.epa.gov/bulbrecycling/ to find a nearby recycling location.
To save energy, slow climate change, and reduce mercury build-up in the environment, energy-efficient lights win over incandescent bulbs hands down.