Following the lead of Australia, the EU is planning to outlaw the use of old-style filament light bulbs as early as 2008. On the surface, this edict to adopt low energy fluorescent devices looks a great way to reduce energy consumption worldwide. Some analysts claim a saving of 10% energy worldwide if this were adopted by the whole planet which is likely to save much more CO2 than any green generation schemes in a much smaller timescale.
However, my training as a chemical engineer tells me to look at the full environmental life cycle of any new product. Any fluorescent light uses mercury to produce the light as high voltage is applied to vaporise and excite the mercury atoms.
Mercury is particularly bad for the environment because it does not get destroyed and can cause catastrophic effects for the food chain, for example see this article.
Traditional filament bulbs use no mercury - so should we stop this inexorable move towards compact fluorescent bulbs (CFL's)?
In short, no, because the story isn't quite that simple. Ironically, the majority of mercury released into the atmosphere actually comes from burning fossil fuels. A US study found that a filament light bulb actually released over double the mercury into the atmosphere that a CFL did due to this indirect effect. The argument may be more marginal for countries such as France, where a high percentage of power is generated from nuclear.
Another welcome development is that some manufacturers, such as Phillips, are working the reduce the mercury content of the lamps they are producing.
The other thing to remember when you change your CFL after many years of saving the environment is not to toss it into the environment - CFL's are one of the many products subject to the EU's WEEE recycling scheme - the manufacturers are obliged to recycle the products.
Convinced now? If not, see this great video - short and well to the point.....
A production of Tamarack Media. Concept by Florence Miller.