save the lightbulb, save the world

In light* of this article, I've been thinking about the importance of substantiating claims, especially when talking about environmental issues.

Specifically, I want to draw your attention to the comments made by Greenpeace:

"Rather than being worried about the mercury these light bulbs contain, the general public should be reassured that using them will actually reduce the amount of mercury overall in our atmosphere."

The implication of the above statement is that energy usage has an effect on the amount of mercury released in to the atmosphere. Now, maybe I'm not clued up enough, and I'm happy to be corrected, but I don't think that power stations in this country throw mercury out in to the atmosphere, at least not in any significant quantity. If they did, for example, one wonders why the good people of Didcot are not all up in arms about living in the shadow of such a power station.

In other words, Greenpeace are talking rubbish. This is a shame, because - in theory at least - there are good reasons for using low energy bulbs. Whatever your view on the latest Global Warming panic - whether you think that we'll all die the Day After Tomorrow, and whether or not you think we can prevent it - using less energy is certainly a good aim. Without wishing to preach fruitarianism and force myself to knit my own underwear (from hemp) I do think that it is important to be environmentally aware and responsible, and certainly to be less wasteful than we are.

I say "in theory at least" because it is not a black and white issue**. From the BBC article we can gather that the low energy bulbs contain mercury and that there are disposal issues. What other nasty substances to they contain? Are the arising environmental issues as bad as excessive energy use? Do the manufacturing and disposal processes consume more energy than those for 'normal' bulbs?

To me it would be much better if we could see the whole picture, and make informed choices. Answers to the questions above would be far more useful than unsubstantiated noises about mercury in the atmosphere. 'Using less energy' seems like a sensible aim, but only if that's what is really achieved and the concept shouldn't be followed through blindly.

It's like the Toyota Prius. If you hadn't bought one, would you be prolonging the life of your old car and lowering its overall carbon footprint, all things considered? (Remember, that there is a lot of energy used in the manufacturing process). Would you have bought a diesel instead, which might have lower carbon emissions, and better economy? Would you have bought a car made in the UK, which doesn't require shipping from Japan (and all the associated energy use?). Would you have bought a car which doesn't need big batteries containing all sorts of chemicals, the mines for which are reported to be doing untold damage to the surrounding areas in the USA?

So, whereas it's good to be responsible and show some environmental concern, it would also be good if we could cut the shock headlines and the rubbish and make decisions which do some good rather than just make us feel good because the label is pink and fluffy.

* no pun intended

** of course there are some things we can do which are more black and white. Switching off lights when not in a room and not leaving devices on standby can have a massive cumulative effect without worrying about extra levels of mercury in the atmosphere and suchlike.


Alasdair said…
I think that you're wrong to accuse greenpeace of talking rubbish in this case.

Burning coal in power stations releases heavy metals like mercury into the atmosphere. A quick google search produced figures that say that total mercury emissions over 5 years are lower for energy saving bulbs than incandescents. Whilst I can't guarantee their accuracy, I find it a plausible answer, so unless you have done some alternative analysis I don't think you should jump to the conclusion that greenpeace are wrong.

In any case, if people recycle the energy saving bulbs the mercury can be recovered.

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