Why My Parents Have a Closet Full of Lightbulbs

Scientific American

My Mom stockpiles lightbulbs. One closet houses neatly stacked cardboard boxes of 60-watt and 100-watt bulbs, arranged by wattage and ready for use the moment an old bulb flickers. She orders them online, with each shipment adding to her supply. My parents don’t fear the apocalypse; they fear a world without incandescent bulbs, the energy-inefficient globes that people think are going lights-out starting January 1 under federal law.

Consumers are correct that conventional incandescent lightbulbs, which fail to meet new energy-efficiency standards, can no longer be legally manufactured or imported into the country. The old style 75- and 100-watt incandescent bulbs were phased out earlier this year. And this week the law hits 60- and 40-watt incandescent bulbs, as well. New incandescents that meet the new standards and generate almost the same brightness, however, have already hit the market.

People like my parents are preparing for the worst, just in case. The 2007 federal law that triggered such bulb collections actually does not favor one energy-saving technology over another; rather, it requires that all light sources such as compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and next-generation incandescent bulbs (like the GE 43W bulb designed to replace the 60-watt incandescent) meet a higher standard of energy efficiency, requiring less power to emit roughly the same amount of light.

Everyone has their reasons for grieving the perceived end of incandescents. My parents’ infatuation with the incandescent bulb stems from a bad experience with a broken compact fluorescent light. They initially had switched over to them several years ago in a dutiful act of energy efficiency. One day a bulb was screwed in a bit too tight. My Dad gave it a tug. Broken fragments fell to the floor. Normally when something shatters in the house, we all benefit from the trusty vacuum cleaner. Here, however, that’s a bad idea. Each CFL contains about five milligrams of mercury (less than one one-hundreth of the amount of mercury present in a mercury thermometer), essential to producing its light. Whirling the substance into smaller bits would send mercury vapor into the air, a bad idea because mercury is toxic and can cause neurological damage that is especially harmful to children and fetuses. My mom, the savvy consumer, knew this. But what she didn’t know was if it would be safe to sweep up and discard the shards. So she called poison control.

They told her to air out the room for five or ten minutes, shut off any circulating air conditioning and then use sticky tape to pick up the pieces. So she grabbed a lint roller and started dabbing at the floor. She was instructed to pack up the shards in a glass jar with a metal lid or sealable plastic bag, and drive to the dump to drop off the remains at the hazardous waste drop site. My mom cleaned the floor several more times that day, all while murmuring about the risks if children one day played in that spot.

Not everyone has a car or easy access to a hazardous waste collection site, so the reality is that many people chuck the remains of broken or merely burnt-out CFLs in the trash. Certain localities require fluorescent bulbs, broken or not, to be recycled. Meanwhile some companies, such as Home Depot, offer recycling services but accept only unbroken CFLs for recycling.  Other companies, such as Lowe’s, state that they will accept broken bulbs if they are bagged first. In the absence of a CFL recycling site, consumers should place old compact fluorescent bulbs in plastic bags before discarding, to help protect the environment from leaking mercury.

After the broken bulb debacle, CFLs are effectively dead to my parents. Not so for all shoppers; some 46 percent of consumers who responded to a recent Osram Sylvania survey say they plan to switch to CFLs. CFLs, with efficiency measured in lumens per watt (since lumens tell us how a bright a light bulb is while watts tell us how much energy the bulb uses), sap 75 percent less energy than traditional incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer than incandescents. (But concerns have also been raised about what CFLs do to already-vulnerable skin cells).  My parents could also check out the pricier light-emitting diodes (LEDs), appealing because they have the longest life, progressively dim instead of burning out and turn on instantly with no warm-up time. Prices on these are dropping to make them competitive with CFLs. But LEDs usually only produce light in one direction, making them less appealing for some household uses. With LEDs, too, some health experts are concerned about toxic substances inside the bulbs and cleanup procedures, but new cheaper, shatterproof options that look and produce light more like incandescents are showing up on store shelves.  The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency says with LEDs, too, consumers should recycle them whenever possible, but if local retailers do not have a drop-off program for the recycling of LED lights the agency says disposing of LED lights in household trash is acceptable.

Once my parents’ inventory of old-school bulbs runs dry, family gatherings will not have to be candlelit. A more energy-efficient incandescent that uses 28 percent less energy than regular incandescents is now available. So far they don’t provide the best bang for their buck, but they’re probably the best choice for my parents. Perhaps my folks will eventually move to LEDs or give CFLs another chance, but there’s no guarantee. After a while, at least they’ll have their closet back.

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