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CFL Conundrum

by Vicki Fulbright Calwell
NW Current, January 31, 2007

The issue of mercury in compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) and how to properly manage spent bulbs is a hot button in the environmental community.

At times, the debate pits solid waste and mercury reduction advocates against energy-efficiency supporters, because of each group's competing priorities. Recycling CFLs to recover the mercury for safe reuse ostensibly appears to be the environmentally safe approach for proper disposal. However, a closer look reveals a perplexing set of factors that together make the prospect of residential CFL recycling a veritable quandary.

Cost-benefit analysis

Various experts dispute the amount of mercury available for release from spent CFLs, but current research suggests CFLs represent between 0.006 and 0.04 percent of U.S. anthropogenic emissions (between 12 and 22 pounds annually in the Northwest). Because they are considerably more energy efficient than their incandescent counterparts, they also help prevent mercury emissions from coal-fired power production. Even in the hydropower-dependent Northwest, where coal represents only 20 percent of the electricity generation mix, there is still a net emissions benefit.

CFL recycling is a fairly expensive method for reclaiming mercury. Consider this: To collect just one pound of mercury, it takes 91,000 CFLs and costs about $45,000. Mercury's market price of roughly $9 per pound means internally financing CFL recycling isn't feasible. Unless the recycling fee is shared, consumers ultimately pay through advanced-recovery or end-of-life fees. Paradoxically, this penalizes those who select the environmentally preferable product, instead of those who purchase less efficient lighting options.

Requiring local government to pay for CFL recycling distributes the cost across society, but it may also siphon funds from other, more valuable reclamation activities. Oregon's Department of Environmental Quality 2004 collection program illustrates this premise well. Of the 194 pounds of mercury collected that year, fluorescent lighting accounted for more than 57 percent of the total cost, but only 0.32 percent of the mercury captured.

Some advocates suggest using public utility funds to recycle CFLs; however, this arguably would reduce resources available to fund the more environmentally beneficial activity of acquiring energy savings.

Global climate change

Climate change is an equally, if not more, important issue. Currently, 154 new coal-fired power plants are proposed in the United States over the next 25 years, 12 of them in the Northwest [see "PacifiCorp's coal proposal falls short," nwcurrent, Jan. 2007]. Even with controls designed to reduce mercury emissions, the impact of additional greenhouse gasses must also be considered. Energy efficiency is the first defense against new power plants, and CFLs offer the single-largest, most cost-effective opportunity for achievable conservation in the region.

Global warming may also contribute to the world's mercury emissions inventory. Northern forests and wetlands are drying out, triggering wildfires where mercury reserves traditionally have been protected in cold, wet soils. Emissions average 23 metric tons annually and top 210 tons in drought years - equivalent to yearly anthropogenic releases in North America!

Recycled mercury dilemma

Frustratingly, mercury collected from recycling efforts may literally go up in smoke. Once purified, mercury recycled from U.S. products enters a global commodity market where few tracking requirements and regulations exist. Because the United States uses less mercury than it produces, the remaining mercury - an estimated 278 tons - is purchased by international metals brokers and is often sold in developing countries for use in artisanal and small-scale gold mining (ASM) camps. ASM is the second largest source of global anthropogenic mercury emissions, releasing 1,000 tons annually, according to the United Nations Environment Programme.

Although increases in sales have generated substantial media and political interest in recycling CFLs, that interest appears to exceed the relative mercury risk they represent. Some argue that mercury should be reclaimed at any cost, but that ignores the reality of limited resources.

Clearly, emission reduction goals should focus on opportunities that capture the most mercury at the lowest cost. Source reduction in CFLs offers the best hope in this regard. Decreasing the average mercury content per bulb from 5 milligrams to 3 milligrams would be the equivalent of achieving a 40 percent recycling rate.

Nevertheless, it's counterintuitive to not recommend recycling, which presents its own set of communication challenges. Additionally, with some counties in Washington passing fluorescent lamp landfill bans, recycling is the only option to publicize. Retail-based recycling programs in the region have had mixed results, but they are generally popular with consumers and purportedly encourage the purchase of replacement CFLs. Efforts to promote recycling could essentially become a public relations strategy, rather than a mercury reduction strategy, to support continued market acceptance.

The issue remains highly dynamic and will require ongoing research. But one thing is certain: An artificial light source without environmental consequence does not yet exist. Therefore, impacts must be assessed comprehensively and not in regards to mercury alone. CFLs prevent the emissions of substantial quantities of mercury, greenhouse gases and other pollutants; they reduce consumer energy bills; and they last far longer than incandescent alternatives. They are currently the environmentally preferable product despite their mercury content - whether they are recycled or not.

Vicki Fulbright Calwell, a communications consultant for Portland-based Ecos Consulting, has conducted research on the CFL/mercury issue for the Northwest Energy Efficiency Alliance, Natural Resources Defense Council and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. She also has helped develop retail-based recycling programs in Oregon and Washington.
CFL Conundrum
NW Current, January 31, 2007

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