CFLs: A Threat

Man has created many new inventions to save the environment, to save our resources, to protect earth from damage due to human activities. A very concerned and responsible thing to do for planet earth, considering the fact that we humans are, not only the main cause of harm to our planet, but because we are the one who can protect earth from any harm (well, somewhat).

Take for example a very simple invention which reduces the energy consumption and has a longer life, i.e., the CFL, short for Compact fluorescent light bulbs. These, when compared to conventional light bulbs consume much less electricity (up to 80% less), and last longer. Even though the invention is small and people may think that it won’t be able to save much electricity, they forget the sheer volumes involved. An incandescent bulb is present in every household across the world and there are trillion of households around the world. Forget the world, there are billions of homes in India alone, which means that there must be many hundred billions of incandescent bulbs in use in India! Suppose you’re using 1 00 watt bulb, that means a total energy consumption of 100W x XX000000000 = XX00000000000W of electricity if allbulbs are turned on for 1 hour! I hope you see what I’m pointing out, that the bulbs consume little energy alone, but multiply that and look at it from a larger angle and the scene changes. People tend to think that a bulb consumes little energy, and therefore installing a relatively expensive CFL is of no use. But think, a CFL uses 80% less electricity, which translates into huge saving on the electricity front, consequently leading to less pollution as electricity is mostly from sources which emit polluting gases into the atmosphere as they run on gas and oil. Isn’t this great?

Yes, obviously, but the problem arises when this invention comes to India! A CFL contains mercury, which should be disposed off safely to ensure that this environment friendly product doesn’t harm the environment. Developed nations have proper disposal methods and stringent rules to ensure safety. If a CFL breaks accidentally in your room, it’s not that dangerous as the amount of mercury is low, about 3mg, and it vapourises as soon as the CFL breaks. However, since the quantity of mercury is around 3 mg, it doesn’t pose much danger. The problem is when CFLs pile up in landfills and break there, leading to harmful air around the landfill site. There is another danger of mercury mixing with water and seeping into the ground, thereby making the water unfit for drinking. In most countries, there are proper disposal mechanisms in place which recycle and detoxify wastes. Mercury from CFLs is recycled and reused, which is the correct thing to do. However, here in India, we have 2 major problems, or 3, if you count lack of awareness among users that exponentially increase the danger these simple, energy saving CFLs pose to our environment.

What’s the problem?

1. Lack of stringent laws and inefficiency in implementation: As mentioned previously, most nations have strict rules when it comes to the amount of mercury in CFLs. However, there are no set guidelines or any adherence to this limit by most manufacturers with the mercury level ranging between 5mg to as much as 13mg of mercury in each CFL! And it’s also known that there’s a huge market of cheap CFLs which have more mercury and lesser life.
Now CFLs have been made mandatory in public buildings, plus more and more people are turning to CFLs. In the year 2007, around 165 million CFLs were sold. This number has grown by leaps and bounds.
2. Another major problem is the lack of facilities to safely dispose of toxic waste. A Swedish firm was given the contract to recycle mercurial waste but it is thinking to back out as it doesn’t think that it will be able to get enough waste to efficiently run the machine.

Actually, the problem is not the lack of mercurial waste, but the lack of proper method to separate toxic waste (in this case mercurial waste) from the non-toxic one There’s complete lack of awareness among people about such simple & important things. Those that do have information do not know where to dispose of such articles like batteries and CFLs which have toxic content. The people collecting waste also do not know what to do with toxic waste, and lack of separate bins and areas compounds the problem of proper collection and disposal.

Now when such large amounts of CFLs are thrown into the landfills, they break down, thereby releasing the neurotoxin mercury into the atmosphere. This mercury may also, as told before, seep into the ground and poison ground water. The danger of such incidents happening in our country is immense thanks to high mercurial content in CFLs (and other mercury containing items) and lack of proper disposal techniques.
What to do?

So, I think it’s high time that Govt. starts educating the people about the harmful effects of mercury (and other wastes too), and the advantages of properly segregating different types of wastes. At the same time, it should make stringent laws on the amount of mercury that should be used to make CFLs. However, more emphasis should be laid on recycling because both, incandescent bulbs, as well as CFLs emit mercury during their usage. A study has found that a 4mg mercury containing CFL emits about 2.4 mg of mercury over its life period. The rest stays inside it. An incandescent bulb, on the hand, emits 10mg over the same period. Therefore, we see that a CFL not only saves electricity, but it also uses less electricity over the same period of time. It’s only when these bulbs break and the mercury escapes that the problem arises. If we have proper recycling machines, we can recover the left mercury, thereby preventing damage to our planet, and saving mercury too. This way, there will be no negative effect of the energy saving & environment friendly CFLs.

And some suggestions
And before the Govt. starts accusing me of only highlighting the problems and not coming up with solutions, I’d like to give some suggestions:
1. Bringing in machines to recycle CFL is the responsibility of the Govt., as well as the CFL manufacturers. How they do it is their headache because the citizens pay their taxes and they are not responsible for bringing in the recycling units.
2. The solution to the problem of low collection: For this, the Govt. should start an awareness campaign, especially in schools and community centers. NGO’s can be roped in to spread the good word and act as collection centers. Waste pickers should be educated on how to segregate toxic waste from non toxic ones. They should be offered incentives to collect toxic waste like the CFLs and depositing it separately. Also, the onus of recollection should be put on the manufacturers because the problem of mercurial waste has huge implications and it cannot be left in the limbo. If the companies say it will eat into their profit margins, then our Govt. should tell them to follow their counterparts in the UK, where CFL manufacturers are told to include a nominal collection fee in the selling price. A sweet way of saving the environment without stressing the pockets.

References: Statistics from Business Standard Newspaper

Zain Inhovi

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