Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Read the Fine, Green Print

Earth Day was April 22nd. In honor of this, the Nitpicky Consumer is taking the time to ponder environmental issues. Unlike the Media Machine (as I'll call the collective world media), I'd like to take a step back from the hype. There are very few resources available that provide a thoughtful comparison of environmental alternatives from A-Z, i.e. throughout the whole life-cycle of the product or service.
  • Is it created using 'green' methods? Using recycled materials? What does it take to produce its core components, in terms of energy and resources?
  • How maintainable is the product? i.e. How soon will it need to be replaced?
  • Once the product does need to be replaced, can it be recycled or must it be trashed? If it can be recycled, how easy is it for the 'average consumer' to understand and do?
Easy Example of the Machine in action, hyping the good side of a new idea while completely ignoring the potential pitfalls:
Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs)
, also known as Compact Fluorescent Lamps.

Go to any major media resource online, and it will be easy as pie to find articles about the amazing energy-saving properties of CFLs and how great it would be to stop using halogens and other designer lights. And of course anything as fabulous as this needs to be mandated, so there is a lot of recent attention on governments trying to figure out how to force everyone to switch, either by raising taxes on traditional incandescents or even making incandescent bulbs illegal. The CFL benefits are easy to list.

But I couldn't find much info on the downsides: i.e. the things that you might not think about right away. My neighbors rightfully pointed out to me that you can't use a dimmer/rheostat with compact fluorescent lights. Well, you CAN, but it costs several hundred dollars so most average consumers won't be making this switch. And quite frankly, dimmers save energy, too. We only use our kitchen table light, dimmed quite low, as an addition to candles. I imagine our dimmed light is not using much more energy than a CFL would in that same fixture (though I can't yet test this as I haven't gotten a hold of one of the nifty gizmos that let's you track such things).

By looking past the main-stream media, you can find more general info about how the CFLs are manufactured, how they actually work, and their life-cycle.

Now, better informed, you have a clue into the downside of CFLs: what happens when they break or wear out. Now you've definitely left the Media Machine behind, and you're reading text-heavy government documents. An EPA fact sheet on CFLs and an Energy Star FAQ on proper disposal of Compact Fluorescent Lights shed some light on this facet of CFLs, which probably won't get full Media Machine attention for several years:
  • Compact Fluorescent Lights, just like any fluorescent light, contain mercury. There is currently no substitute for this mercury. Each one contains about as much as the tip of a ballpoint pen.
  • If you break a CFL you should NOT touch any part of it with your bare hands. Unfortunately, as some of them look from the outside like regular incandescents, I am quite certain that not everyone is going to realize this.
  • And most important of all, old/used CFLs should NOT be disposed of in the trash.
Well then ... what do you do with them when they break or wear out? As the helpful FAQs explain, you can call various numbers and visit various websites or call your local government to find the closest disposal location. I went to earth911.org (the site recommended by energystar.gov), and was thrilled to find out that the closest disposal site to me is -- wait for it -- 46 miles away.

At this point, if you're like most average consumers (especially in America), you'll simply toss it into the garbage bin and hope it doesn't cause too much of an issue. But once we have a million of these, broken and leaking mercury in our landfills, or being incinerated into the air we breath, I suspect we're going to have an issue.

Am I against CFLs? Certainly Not. I am starting to switch to them myself.

Do I think that there should be legislation requiring them? Certainly Not. Let's allow people to make their own decisions, although government may need to become involved in disposal.

It seems to me that a good balance for a home at this point would be to have a 50-50 mix of CFLs and Incandescents (on a rheostat). And it wouldn't hurt to have one neighbor who volunteers to drive the 46 miles to dispose of everyone's old fluourescents, once every 5 years or so.

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