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The Heap

The Right Light?

cfl_light_bulb.jpgIn a recent Slate article, Brendan I. Koerner seeks to promote the use of compact fluorescent light bulbs by assuaging fears about their mercury content. According to Koerner, the infinitesimal amount of mercury in each bulb is harmless if they are handled properly. And, he goes on to say, any environmental risk is small when compared to the amount of mercury emitted by coal-fired power plants struggling to illuminate all of those incandescent bulbs. I agree with his point. Moreover, I think that we're still early enough in the CFL lifespan to train consumers to recycle them properly (Koerner agrees that "thousands upon thousands of broken bulbs in a garbage dump could be seriously bad news"). Right now, that means taking them to an IKEA store, a specialty recycler, or mailing them, but Koerner insists more retail chains will soon accept the bulbs.

Meanwhile, Koerner spends 90 percent of his article talking about mercury and only briefly touches on what is, for most people I know, the main knock against CFLs: The horrid, unnatural light they cast. In defense, he cites a 2007 Popular Mechanics article that tested a range of CFLs. It's all very scientific, employing chromameters and double-blind tests, ultimately declaring the light cast by CFLs "superior." I would counter with this January 2008 New York Times article that simply involved people looking at lamps and was far less impressed with the light cast by all but a few CFLs.

In addition to conserving energy, CFLs could help remove millions of incandescent bulbs from the waste stream. I am a proponent of their adoption and use several in my home right now. But there are places where they work and places where they don't, due to the light they cast or actual incompatibility (most don't work with dimmer switches, for example). The suggestion that every bulb in the home should be swapped out immediately seems disingenuous. I suspect this will be a gradual transition rather than a wholesale one for most consumers.

What do you think?