October 1, 2007
Low-Impact Use: A New Standard
For all their energy efficiency, fluorescents still have dangerous traces of mercury. With its Alto II bulb, Philips has reduced the toxic metal by half.
Once the ugly duckling of the lighting world, the fluorescent bulb recently has become something of an eco-darling thanks to its energy efficiency. Whereas a standard off-the-shelf incandescent bulb devotes only about five percent of its total electrical consumption to produce visible light (the remainder is released in heat), fluorescent lighting employs an entirely different process (it radiates rather than burns) that is four to six times more efficient. Fluorescents are indisputably superior in performance, but up to 5 milligrams of mercury, a hazardous trace metal, is included in the manufacture of each lamp.
In quest of a greener product, Philips Lighting Company—which set the industry standard in 1995 with the release of the Alto, a T8 containing only 3.5 milligrams of mercury per bulb—has now cut that by half with its Alto II, with only 1.7 milligrams per bulb. John Wilson, product manager for the Alto lines, says Philips accomplished this in two ways: “First, by developing a coating for the inside of the lamp” that helps to prevent the mercury from absorbing into the glass over time; and “second, by tightly controlling the release of the mercury into the lamp” with a special heat-triggered capsule. Only 100 percent recycled mercury is used, and the company hopes eventually to do away with the metal altogether. “The technology is just not there yet,” Wilson says. “Maybe in ten or twelve years.” And while many in the industry anticipate that LEDs will surpass fluorescents as a clean energy-efficient light source, the hype still exceeds the technology. “In terms of providing general lighting, LEDs are still a number of years away from being an acceptable substitute,” Wilson says.
Considering the lack of viable alternatives, the Alto II has arrived just in time: a “ban the bulb” movement is gaining strength around the globe. Australia recently promised to outlaw all incandescent lighting by the year 2009, and in California legislators have proposed a bill that will phase out the sale of the bulbs by 2012. New Jersey is considering a requirement that government buildings replace all incandescent lighting with compact fluorescents (CFLs) by 2010, and six other states have similar proposals in the works. Even big retail is joining the push—Wal-Mart aims to boost its sales of CFLs to more than 100 million by the end of this year.
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While this fluorescent fever is good news for reducing global greenhouse-gas emiss-ons, any significant adoption would introduce hundreds of millions of new mercury-laced bulbs into the environment, even though it would decrease the total number of lamps being thrown away (fluorescents last eight to ten times longer than incandescents). According to the California Product Stewardship Council, local governments have “neither the capacity nor the resources to manage this waste stream,” making independent take-back and recycling programs critical. Currently, IKEA is the only major U.S. retailer with an in-store fluorescent-recycling program (which collected more than 156,000 pounds of CFLs in 2006). Philips U.S.A. does not offer an in-house take-back program, but the company is forming a partnership with a national recycling firm and working with the National Electrical Manufacturers Association to establish a network of retail take-back programs.
Initiatives like these, coupled with technological innovation, are helping to position fluorescents as the low-impact, energy-efficient light source we desperately need. Consider the statistics: if every American replaced one incandescent with a CFL, we could save more than $8 billion in energy costs, prevent burning 30 billion pounds of coal, and reduce greenhouse-gas emissions equal to that of 2 million cars. Now imagine if we changed more than one bulb. Arc Light Design principal David Singer, who moderated a recent lecture series on the future of the incandescent bulb at New York’s Center for Architecture, takes this thinking one step further, arguing that we have to match product innovation with smart energy-efficient design that reduces artificial-light levels and integrates the use of motion and daylight sensors. “We are not changing our lifestyle by changing a bulb,” Singer says. “If we want truly sustainable lighting, we need an awareness of both the products we use and how we use them.”
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