CFLs and Mercury … reducing the problem …

Walmart continues to make news in the ‘greening’ / energy efficiency environment.  Earlier this week, there was the announcement of a large solar buy.  Today, they announced a path forward for reducing mercury in compact flourescent lightbulbs (CFLs). As given prominence earlier this year, Wal-Mart is seeking to sell 100+ million CFLs per year. (For an analysis, see:  Walmart … lighting a revolution for energy efficiency use?) Now, they seek to reduce the mercury footprint of these CFLs.

Mercury in Compact Flourescent Lightbulbs (CFLs) is a serious issue — perhaps the most serious real drawback for CFL use.  Now, CFLs use over 70% less electricity than the incandescent bulbs that they replace and, therefore, because of reduced electricity use greatly reduce the mercury that enters the environment. According to the EPA fact sheet Mercury in CFLs,

Ironically, CFLs present an opportunity to prevent mercury from entering our air, where it most affects our health. The highest source of mercury in our air comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal, the most common fuel used in the U.S. to produce electricity. A CFL uses 75% less energy than an incandescent light bulb and lasts at least 6 times longer. A power plant will emit 10mg of mercury to produce the electricity to run an incandescent bulb compared to only 2.4mg of mercury to run a CFL for the same time.

This, by the way, seems to assume that 100% of the CFL’s mercury enters the atmosphere — that none of that mercury is properly handled and kept from the atmosphere.

Today’s Wal-Mart announcement looks to change this equation for the better as they claim that they will reduce mercury by 33%, or roughly 360 pounds from each 100 million CFLs sold in its stores.

This type of advance shows how Wal-Mart’s huge power in the marketplace can work for environmental benefit. Wal-Mart’s emphasis on selling CFLs will reduce electricity use and will reduce coal-electricity originated mercury pollution. Wal-Mart’s work with its supplier chain to focus on the mercury problem and bringing a better solution to the market-place — faster — will mean less mercury pollution from the CFLs themselves.

And, the lower mercury content CFLs will, almost certainly, migrate from the Walmart arena through the entire market space.

  • Did Wal-Mart go to “green” as greenwashing? Almost certainly.

  • Was (is?) a key driver to take attention away from its myriad of problems with a good part of the public (labor relations, imports from China, etc)?  Almost certainly. 

  • Are they, as per their efforts at energy efficiency, finding what began as “greenwashing” to be making them “green”?  Almost certainly. 

  • And, do these paths look to be benefitting all of us (US) and not just Wal-Mart?  Well, have to say, as well, almost certainly.

PS:  Just to be clear … CFLs COST LESS — they cost more to buy than incandescents, but they cost far less to operate, far less to own … say it with me, CFLs COST LESS.  The Wal-Mart press release, on this, is accurate …

Converting just one conventional light bulb to a CFL can save up to $30 in electric costs over its lifetime, prevent more than 110 lbs. of coal from being burned, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 450 lbs.

I give Wal-Mart credit for their efforts to educate their customers toward a smarter energy choice in this regard — a choice that will benefit us (US) all.  As they know in The Power of 180 Million,

“If every Wal-Mart shopper, all 180 million of us, bought just one compact fluorescent bulb, it would reduce emissions the same as taking a million cars off the road.”


2 responses to “CFLs and Mercury … reducing the problem …

  1. Doug Snodgrass

    Thanks A.S. This is an important discussion and one that I’ve struggled with personally.

    There are many who are members of the autism community (including myself as a parent) who have serious questions about mercury and its possible role in the autism epidemic. It’s actually a hotly debated topic that I don’t expect will be settled for quite some time, if ever. There are enough questions to give us serious pause at the mere mention of the M word (mercury). There are even some areas that have outlawed the sale of mercury containing products, including the county in NY where I had lived until recently.

    Where do we have more to gain and lose? Proper handling is really key here.

  2. There are serious recommendations in the EPA page about how to handle broken CFLs and how to dispose of CFLs.

    I am frustrated, because it is a real drive to get to the nearest authorized place to dispose of — for example — CFLs and batteries. How many people hold on to their batteries to then drive over 5 miles to a disposal site?

    RE CFL — they say that if you can’t get to an appropriate disposal site, to wrap the bulbs in a plastic bag before putting in the trash.

    By the way, to reduce (eliminate) the mercury issue — you could go LED lights.

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