Lighting an Efficient Future, Minus the Mercury
More and more countries are banning incandescent light bulbs in favor of energy-efficient compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs. But options to recycle the mercury-laden alternatives are often scarce.
A variety of European Union recycling regulations make it unlawful for EU residents to dispose of CFLs in the trash. In the United States, some states are following suit, though most localities rely on consumers to voluntarily mail the bulbs back to manufacturers for recycling. In developing countries, recycling is less available, and proper landfills often do not even exist in the event that the bulbs are discarded as trash.
To reduce hazardous waste at its source, leading CFL manufacturers have committed to reduce the mercury content of their products. Martin Goetzeler, CEO of Munich-based Osram, said his company aims to cut the mercury content of its CFLs by half in the coming years. "It should be part of any new technology that hazardous substances are regulated," he said. "And we should use the lowest levels [of toxins]."
CFLs presently contain between 2.5 and 3 milligrams of mercury, which Osram will reduce to between 1.3 and 1.8 milligrams, Goetzeler said Wednesday during a talk organized by the Worldwatch Institute.
General Electric is investing in lower-mercury CFL technology as well. "If we can get [mercury] down to 1 milligram of mercury, that is a big breakthrough," Lorraine Bolsinger, vice president of GE's ecoimagination unit, told reporters last year,
Despite the mercury content, CFLs have emerged as one of the most environmentally prudent indoor-lighting options. They use one-quarter to one-fifth the electricity of incandescent bulbs, and can last about 10 times longer. Switching to CFLs is the most cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to a McKinsey & Company analysis.
By saving energy, greater CFL usage also results in less coal-based power generation. This is important when considering that the roughly 2 tons of mercury contained in the 380 million CFLs sold in the United States last year was dwarfed by the 50 tons of mercury that U.S. coal plants emitted into the atmosphere.
Osram is also developing bulbs with a longer lifetime, which chief sustainability officer Wolfgang Gregor says would stall disposal and therefore increase the bulbs' "mercury mileage. "Mercury down to zero is impossible without a performance drop," Gregor said. "We can increase the lifetime of the lamp with the same amount of mercury-increasing the mercury mileage drastically."
Mercury, a neurological toxin, often leaches into the soil and groundwater beneath landfills, or is incinerated into the air - unless it is recycled. Osram has arranged CFL-recycling drop-off locations throughout the European Union, and has also helped coordinate a mail-in program with the U.S. Postal Service. Goetzeler said recycling rates are as high as 80 percent in parts of Europe, but the EU acknowledges that its recycling initiatives are uneven in different regions. Recycling options have yet to be organized in many other countries, especially those with much lower recycling rates.
In recent years, a variety of industrialized and developing nations have mandated for incandescent bulbs to be banned over time. In Australia, Italy, and the Philippines, for example, the sale of incandescent light bulbs will be banned by 2010.
GE has opposed the bans because the company has been developing mercury-free, super-efficient incandescent bulbs. But Osram's Goetzeler says his company encourages consumers to abandon incandescent bulbs for reasons of global sustainability, in addition to profits. "It's technically feasible to save 50 percent of electricity [generated] for lighting," he said. "If you want to save energy.... No excuse, you can do it today."