The country did a great job reducing mercury emissions during the 90s. Between 1990 and 1999 the U.S. emissions of human-caused mercury dropped from 220 tons to 115 tons per year. Now it's environmentally correct to promote and sell compact fluorescents (and not make the consumer aware that most CFLs contain mercury, the safe cleanup precautions and how to dispose of CFLs properly).
Disposing of CFLs is easy. Put the burned out lights in a bag next to your new lights. (Put your used batteries in the same bag.) Twice a year, when your city has its Hazardous Waste Day, go to ten neighbors and ask them if you can take their burned out CFLs. Your neighbor will either say “Thanks” or “No.” If they say “No,” it is for one of three reasons: 1) They don’t have any burned out CFLs; 2) They don’t use CFLs; or 3) They didn’t know that CFLs were hazardous waste.
The combined amount of mercury in CFLs only adds up to a few tons. The total amount of mercury emitted by coal-fired electrical plants in 1999 was 50 tons. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), the third-world gold-processing industry creates 650 to 1,000 tons of mercury per year. Up to 80 percent of the world’s gold is used in jewelry. (If you want to turn a redneck into an environmentalist, tell him buying gold jewelry for his wife is environmentally incorrect.) Gold jewelry causes 10 times more mercury to be emitted into the atmosphere than coal-fired electrical plants, and gold jewelry is OK?
The disregard for the mercury in CFLs stems from an Environmental Protection Agency report: “Coal-fired power plants emit four times more mercury to power an incandescent bulb than to power a CFL; emitting 13.6 mg of mercury compared to just 3.3 mg for a CFL.” But only 25 percent of our nation’s power comes from coal, and only 25 percent of that is used in residential, and only 15 percent of that is used for lighting. The coal-power plants emit 100,000 pound of mercury per year: 100,000 pounds x 25 percent x 25 percent x 15 percent = 937 pounds per year. That's about the amount of mercury Wal-Mart committed to distribute yet this year when they committed to distribute 100,000,000 “reduced mercury” CFLs.
Mercury is a neurotoxin. Most CFLs only contain 5 mg of mercury. That's not much unless it’s atomized. It's probably not dangerous for an adult. But for pregnant women and small children, caution always wins.
The EPA doesn't call the following a warning. I do. Read it and decide for yourself.
Fluorescent light bulbs contain a very small amount of mercury sealed within the glass tubing. EPA recommends the following clean-up and disposal guidelines (www.epa/mercury/spills/index.htm):
1. Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
2. Carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a sealed plastic bag.
3. Use disposable rubber gloves, if available (i.e., do not use bare hands). Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes and place them in the plastic bag. Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.
3. Place all cleanup materials in a second sealed plastic bag. Place the first bag in a second sealed plastic bag and put it in the outdoor trash container or in another outdoor protected area for the next normal trash disposal. Note: Some states prohibit such trash disposal and require that broken and unbroken lamps be taken to a local recycling center. Wash your hands after disposing of the bag.
4. If a fluorescent bulb breaks on a rug or carpet: First, remove all materials you can without using a vacuum cleaner, following the steps above. Sticky tape (such as duct tape) can be used to pick up small pieces and powder. If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister) and put the bag or vacuum debris in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal.
I think it is environmentally irresponsible to promote or distribute a product that becomes a hazardous waste without making sure the consumer understands that the product becomes a hazardous waste, what to do incase of accidents and how to properly dispose of the product.
Chris Slotten is the founder of www.environmentalmaniac.com.