Starting next January, new Canadian regulations will kick in removing incandescent light bulbs from store shelves and replacing them with more energy-efficient compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) and light emitting diodes (LEDs). As environmentalists, we applaud this move to reduce energy consumption and the use of fossil fuels such as coal.
While the use of CFLs has many benefits, they do contain a chemical of concern: mercury. We're not trying to shine a bad light on these energy-saving bulbs, however, their safe disposal is important.
Here's why: If CFLs end up in a landfill, the mercury can leech into the soil or can be released into the atmosphere. Mercury is toxic, and can impact human neurological, cardiovascular and immunological systems and kidneys. If an infant is exposed to mercury while in the womb, it can lead to problems with neuro-development. In extreme cases, long-term exposure can lead to coma or even death.
But mercury is also released into the environment when coal is burned to generate electricity. So using energy-wasting light bulbs, even if the bulbs themselves contain no mercury, creates toxic pollution too.
So, what can environmentally-conscious consumers do to help reduce energy consumption and mercury pollution at the same time?
Public awareness is the key. Consumers need to know that by using CFL bulbs, and less energy, they are reducing mercury emissions and other emissions into the atmosphere. But since the bulbs contain mercury, they have to be disposed of differently than other waste. They are considered hazardous waste and should be disposed of through your municipality's hazardous waste program.
Some businesses, such as Home Depot, are also showing leadership in this area by offering a take back/recycling programs for CFLs.
Another alternative is to switch to the latest generation of completely non-toxic LED bulbs, which are more efficient and produce warmer looking light. While still more expensive, the prices for LEDs are dropping quickly and they can last more than 20 years, meaning you can save in the long-run.
If you're using CFLs, rather than LEDs, to cut down on your energy usage, what do you do if a CFL bulb breaks? We know that they contain toxic mercury, which poses a risk to the members of your household. But many people don't know how to safely deal with breakage. Here are some tips:
1. For starters, don't vacuum. Clear the area of people and pets, and open a window to air out the area.
2. Get a piece of cardboard, or stiff paper, and some sticky tape, damp paper towels, and a jar or sealable bag in which to dispose of the broken pieces and cleaning materials.
3. Using the cardboard or paper, scoop up all glass fragments. Then, using the tape, pick up any small remaining fragments and powder.
4. Place the fragments and all cleaning materials in the sealable jar or bag, then take it outside, keeping it separate from regular household waste.
5. Dispose of the material as hazardous waste; Canadian municipalities have differing programs, so be sure to contact yours directly for proper instructions.
Take the time to find out what programs are available in your community. In the end, it's important to keep CFLs, and ultimately mercury, out of landfills by diverting the bulbs to mercury recycling programs or hazardous waste facilities.
Let's do our part to save energy and reduce mercury pollution at the same time.