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December 2nd, 2009 NIGEL JAQUISS | News Stories
 

Mercury Rising

What’s Metro’s plan for those feel-good light bulbs poisoning Portland’s water?

     
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IMAGE: Lena Podesta

If you’re feeling all environmentally conscious about buying compact fluorescent light bulbs, check yourself.

Larry Tuttle, director of the Center for Environmental Equity in Portland, says CFLs are one area in which Oregon is failing to live up to its reputation as an environmental pioneer.

CFLs’ downside is the toxic substance that makes them work—mercury. Each bulb contains about 4 milligrams—about one one-hundredth the amount of mercury found in an old thermometer. And Tuttle estimates, based on national usage patterns and Oregon DEQ data, that Oregonians dispose of more than 6 million CFLs annually.

Most burnt-out CFLs in this region go to landfills because Metro, the region’s solid waste disposal agency, lacks a recycling plan for them. And Tuttle is pressuring the Metro Council to, in effect, force recycling that would keep broken CFLs from leaking mercury into the ground.

“Portland is way behind Seattle, and Oregon is way behind a number of other states when it comes to disposing of burnt-out CFLs,” says Tuttle.

Beyond the bulbs’ high price (about $4, compared with 75 cents for a traditional incandescent bulb), mercury is the most contentious aspect of replacing traditional bulbs with CFLs.

CFL boosters have tried to frame the toxin as a plus. They say CFLs, which use about a quarter of the energy of incandescent bulbs, reduce the consumption of coal power and thus the amount of mercury emitted into the atmosphere. (Coal-fired power plants are the largest contributor of mercury to the atmosphere, according to the federal Department of Energy.)

Tuttle says that argument is dubious because in most cases coal-fired plants are among the

lowest-cost sources of power. And he says that means those “plants rarely—if ever—operate at less than full capacity.”

Since coal plants are always burning, that means the power savings consumers realize through their feel-good bulbs actually comes from turning off more expensive sources of electricity—most often gas-powered plants, which don’t produce mercury. But Tuttle says the discussion of utility economics misses the larger point: If policy dictates consumers use CFLs, policymakers must also provide a safe disposal mechanism for them.

Metro spokesman Jim Middaugh says Tuttle’s underlying point is correct.

“A landfill ban doesn’t work without a recycling plan in place,” Middaugh says. “And Larry is probably right to put pressure on us to put one in place.”

Middaugh says the agency is at least six months away from producing a new plan that could deal with diverting CFLs from the waste stream.

Tuttle says without such a policy, CFLs are the equivalent of slapping a “Stop Global Warming Now!” bumper sticker on a gas-guzzler.

“Even if CFL use were offsetting coal-fired plant emissions,” he says, “adding mercury to the environment at other locations and facilities, such as urban transfer stations and landfills, is not a green or sustainable policy because environment and human health are endangered.”


FACTS: Home Depot and IKEA currently the only local recycler of CFLs. But the store only accepts bulbs it sold.

CFLs now account for about 23 percent of screw-in bulbs, according to federal data.

 
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