Q: I want to help reduce CO2 emissions by using energy-efficient lights, but I hear they contain mercury. What should I do?
A: Thanks to daylight savings time and, you know, the whole rotation of the Earth thing, the days are getting shorter and our dependency on light bulbs turns into a full-blown addiction. Considering we're nowhere near meeting our looming Kyoto targets, we should all be cutting back on our carbon dioxide emissions any way we can, and lighting is a great place to start.
Regular incandescent lights haven't changed much since Edison's time - they're still incredibly inefficient. In fact, only 10 per cent of the electricity they consume is emitted as light; the rest is wasted as heat. And wasting electricity is really irresponsible when you consider all the coal-burning, nuke-making, oil-drilling and traditional-land-flooding that goes along with the top four energy sources in Canada. Think of it this way: for every kilowatt hour of electricity you use, power plants release about 1.34 pounds of CO2 into the air! Yikes! And while halogen lighting was hailed as top of the line in the 80s and 90s, it's also super-inefficient, not to mention a fire hazard. (You can fry an egg on those torchieres, they're so hot.)
Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are definitely the way to go. Yes, they might cost more, but they use 60 to 80 per cent less energy and last 20 times longer. Plus, by replacing 10 regular bulbs with CFLs, you'll keep about 250 kilograms of CO2 out of the ecosystem, and money, too.
You're right that CFLs aren't angels - they all contain a little mercury. It's the nature of fluorescents. But the use of CFLs still amounts to a net reduction of pollutants, including mercury. After all, your energy saving helps save some of the mercury released by coal-fired power plants.
Philips is recognized industry-wide for having the lowest mercury content in its CFLs (the Philips Marathon 16-watt, said to last five years, is available at Home Depot and Staples, from $7.98 each). But while other companies do have higher mercury levels, they're not considered high enough to be dangerous.
Globe CFLs last up to 5,000 hours and start at $6.99 at Canadian Tire. Greenlite CFLs should keep shining up to 10,000 hours (available at Grassroots on Danforth or Bloor from $14.99 each) as will Pur Lites (from $12.99/4 at Canadian Tire). Remember, different CFLs give off very different lights, some harsher or warmer than others. It's best to ask.
Full-spectrum lights are compact fluorescents that emit all colours in the visible spectrum. They've also been credited with fighting everything from tooth decay to cancer. That might be a bit far-fetched, but they do help with seasonal affective disorder (S.A. D.). If you're interested, Big Carrot on Danforth sells Teldon full-spectrum light bulbs that last up to 10,000 hours for $26.95.
Natural-spectrum lights aren't always compact fluorescents, and if they're not they don't save any more energy than regular lights, but they do last just as long as CFLs. Plus, they're the best at simulating sunlight and are also great for SAD Seventh Generation natural-spectrum bulbs filter out the excess yellow and green light that you get from regular bulbs, reducing eye strain and glare (from $10.19 at Noah's on Yonge or Bloor). They last about 3,500 hours (four times longer than ordinary bulbs). Flicker-free Verilux natural spectrums last up to 5,000 hours (from $19.99 at Grassroots and the Big Carrot) and come with a three-year warranty.
As you know, if you are using regular incandescents, you should turn them off when you're not in the room, even if you'll be back soon. But the protocol is a little different for CFLs. It's actually better not to turn them off if you're exiting a room for a short while (they burn out faster), but do turn them off when you're taking off for longer periods.
By the way, Torontonians landfill about 10 million bulbs every year. But because of their mercury content, do not throw your CFLs or regular fluorescent lights in the trash. Take them to a household hazardous waste depot. (See www.city.toronto.ca/garbage or call 416-338-2010 for locations.)
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