I have noticed a meme circulating the internet over the past 2 weeks – fear of landfill contamination by an increase in the use of CFL bulbs. While there is trace amounts of mercury in CFL bulbs, and I do believe that there needs to be more public education from places that sell the bulbs to avoid them ending up in the garbage – I would like to note that the possible reduction in mercury emissions from coal fired power plants outweighs the amount used to produce the bulb, over the bulbs lifetime.
This fact sheet (warning PDF also found at wikipedia) on the subject notes that there is approximately 4.0mg of mercury in a CFL bulb, and the emissions from a coal fired plant to produce the energy to run the bulb over it’s lifetime is an additional 2.4mg of mercury. Contrast that with 10.0mg of emissions for a conventional incandescent bulbs over the same 5 year lifespan of the CFL bulb. The incandescent is still producing more gaseous mercury contamination than the CFL. Also, the mercury contained in the CFL bulb remains in a form that can be recycled.
I do believe that end-of-life initiatives do need to be put into place. Following on the recyclable bottles and cans idea, perhaps a 25-50 cent “deposit” could be initiated by states upon purchase to help defer the cost of recycling the bulbs and help encourage the public to bring them back to stores and recycling centers after their long life and properly dispose of the bulbs. Money from unreturned bulbs could be passed on to recyclers to help reduce their cost.
In my opinion, the potential for reduction in energy consumption that CFL bulbs represent should not be derailed by the mercury concern. Over its lifetime CFL bulbs will be responsible for less coal plant emmissions, and maintain the mercury in a form that is recyclable instead of released in a gaseous form into the atmosphere. Proper handling and customer education will be key going forward. I fear that well placed articles like the ones circulating now will make the consumer look at CFL’s as a “dirty” choice to the incandescent. We need to keep educating the public that the power savings, and ability to recycle the bulbs far outweigh the risks.