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  Sierra Magazine
  May/June 2006
Table of Contents
Interview With a Whale
Decoder: Miles to Go
Between Two Worlds
Interview: Jane Goodall
Going for Broke
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
Sierra Club Bulletin
Last Words
Sierra Archives
About Sierra
Internships at Sierra
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hey mr. green
Mr. Green's May 1, 2006, Mailbag

Rants, raves, and righteous ideas from our readers

Mr. Green loves hearing from his readers, whether they think he's a green guru or an eco-idiot. Periodically, he'll post some of his favorite exchanges online. To join an ongoing debate--or start a new one--e-mail

The Luminous Agony of Seeking (Fluorescent) Enlightenment

Sometimes I pray to the Lord, "Please, please, let me be Dr. Phil or Dear Abby." They get to answer frivolous questions about overwrought emotions and lame behavior off the top of their pretty little heads, while Mr. Green has to field tough, brilliant questions from a savvy, feisty, relatively sane readership of 1.4 million.

Consider, for example, the challenge to my advocacy of fluorescent lighting posed by the following letter, which was excerpted from a two-page, single-space missive by a PhD in bioenvironmental engineering. At issue is the mercury contained in fluorescent bulbs versus the mercury emitted by coal-burning power plants while generating the immense amount of extra power consumed by less efficient incandescent lights.

Hey Mr. Green,
Is conserving energy more environmentally sound than preventing mercury pollution? In some cases, the answer clearly is no. Mercury is highly poisonous, persists in the environment (it doesn't ever break down), and can't be practically cleaned up once it has dispersed. It is easier to scrub the power-plant exhaust at a single point of pollution than to collect mercury diffused into the environment.

How do people dispose of fluorescent bulbs? Do people really recycle them? Hardly anyone realizes they should, and hardly anyone would bother if they knew. --Elizabeth in Beavercreek, Oregon

Hey Elizabeth,
You raise some mighty important questions about a serious toxic problem. It's hard to pin down exact figures, but the best estimates indicate that only about 24 percent of fluorescents get recycled. This low rate does not simply result from personal failings or ignorance, though I'll grant you that people are often lazy and indifferent. After all, sloth didn't get ranked as one of the seven deadly sins just because some theologian thought it would look cool on the list, but because there was abundant empirical evidence of its deleterious effects.

Obviously, one reason we have laws is to force us lazy humans to actually do something. Just how much they can achieve is evident in the European Union, which has strict, uniform legislation requiring fluorescent recycling and inclusion of recycling costs in the price of bulbs. Consequently, the EU's fluorescent recycling rates range from 50 to 80 percent, with the intrepid Swedes leading the pack. If we had this sort of system, we might well be able to duplicate their success. There's nothing like an economic motive to get people off their duffs.

As it stands in the United States, businesses are estimated to do about 85 percent of total fluorescent recycling. This is clearly because many of them are legally required to recycle fluorescents. Their activity would undoubtedly be greater if enforcement weren't so lax and if the hodgepodge of rules in many states didn't exempt thousands of businesses. (With New York and California having abolished many exemptions, it will be interesting to see if their recycling rates go up.)

Finally, I agree that it's theoretically easier to scrub out mercury at power plants than to persuade millions of people to recycle. But unless mercury-emission rules are tightened, instead of loosened as they have been under the Bush-Cheney regime, those scrubbers will never be installed. The only way to get cleaner smokestacks is to scrub the right-wing environment-loathing culture-of-death Republicans out of Congress and elect a president who hasn't been bought off by the energy industry. But we've got to hurry: Fetuses poisoned by mercury have lower IQs, which would probably drive them to vote for more of these types of Republicans when they grow up.

Mr. Green

Small Is Beautiful

Hey Mr. Green,
I just love your column! I wanted to alert you to another place where folks can recycle their fluorescent lightbulbs: Ikea. It may be a big-box store, but it has pretty strong environmental policies. Most folks don't know that Ikea was one of the first companies to stop using polyvinyl chloride (PVC) in its products. (It is one of the few places, for example, to carry affordable non-PVC plastic shower curtains.) Though Ikea uses particleboard in a lot of its products, it meets the stringent German E1 standard for very low off-gassing of formaldehyde (a known carcinogen).

It may sound as if I own stock in Ikea (which is impossible since it's a privately held company) or work there, but I don't. I'm a healthy-building-materials expert, and it's my job to know these things. --Jan in Kensington, California

Hey Jan,
Thanks for the kind words. Mr. Green is more than eager to rush such fine compliments into cyberspace. Scandinavian-based Ikea certainly rates very high for sound environmental practices. In addition to the things you mention, Ikea has abolished brominated flame retardants that have been linked to cancer and hormone disruption.

The company makes a serious attempt to use sustainably harvested wood in its furniture and has many requirements for recycling and energy conservation. Ikea also collaborates frequently with environmental groups, having turned to Greenpeace as early as 1992 for advice on catalog production. Today Ikea's catalogs are printed on non-chlorine-bleached paper made with pulp from farmed wood, not old-growth trees. The company also uses 10 to 20 percent postconsumer recycled paper in these publications.

Some of its European outlets even offer free bus transportation to stores. None of this seems to hurt the bottom line; if anything, Ikea's green policies probably help sales. Yep, sometimes Old Europe still has some lessons to teach us.

My only gripes against Ikea are its acres of parking lots and hideously soulless, utilitarian architecture. You would think that a company this savvy could come up with a bit of intelligent design in places where it really matters.

Hey Mr. Green,
Most of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs we've tried buzz noisily. Are there any brands that don't? --Noreen in Bozeman, Montana

Hey Noreen,
I'm typing this message by the light of a deliciously silent compact fluorescent, made by Lights of America, while being mortally annoyed by the buzz of the computer. There are three possible reasons for your noise problem: First, the fixture itself might be vibrating in a way that amplifies an otherwise inaudible buzz. Second, a dimmer switch could be causing problems with the bulb's ballast, a device that controls the current flow in fluorescents, the most common suspect for buzz. (In compact lamps, the ballast is in the lamp; in many other types of fluorescents, it's in the fixture.) Or, third, you may simply have gotten stuck with cheap bulbs that have poor components.

Being a miser, I'm inclined to shun name-brand products; if you got a headache from your light buzz, I'd recommend generic supermarket ibuprofen instead of the pricier Advil. But with compact fluorescents, you should choose Energy Star-qualified bulbs recommended by the EPA. These include big names such as General Electric, Panasonic, Osram Sylvania, Philips, and Westinghouse and lesser-known brands such as Feit, MaxLite, and Technical Consumer Products. For a full list, visit or call the toll-free Energy Star hotline at (888) STAR-YES.

Hey Mr. Green,
I like to turn off all the lights when I'm not using them, but my husband prefers to leave certain ones on at all times--even at night! He says it wastes more energy to turn fluorescent lights off and on than it does to just leave them on. Please let us know who is right. We promise we will follow your advice. --Alberta in Anchorage

Hey Alberta,
Thanks for providing this fine opportunity to burnish my feminist credentials by resolving a dispute in favor of a woman. Yes, it does take a surge of current to turn on a fluorescent lamp, but urban legend has exaggerated that into a veritable lightning bolt hurled from a mile-high drill rig. In fact, the extra juice needed to ignite the bulb only flows for a mere 1/120 of a second and draws as much extra current as the bulb would consume in about five seconds of operation. So the single easiest and simplest piece of environmental advice is as true as it was when your great-grandma first uttered it: Turn off the lights. (Frequent on/off switching does, however, slightly diminish the life of the bulb; for maximum cost-effectiveness, a good rule of thumb is to turn off the lights in a room you'll be leaving for 15 minutes or longer.)

P.S. See my point, readers? If this couple got into a major spat over the lighting issue, Dr. Phil would've hauled them onto his show to blab about their feelings for the amusement of a zillion total strangers, while Dear Abby would've advised them to work on their communication skills and proposed a goody-goody compromise, perhaps alternating light-switch duties.

Now how much effort is required to dream up that sort of counseling? But instead of offering platitudes, your Mr. Green toils away ceaselessly to dig up the hard facts that will settle disputes once and for all. So if environmental issues are causing romantic rifts, contact Mr. Green as he inaugurates his new column, "Hey Mr. Sex, Love, and the Environment."

Views expressed by readers may not reflect those of Mr. Green or Sierra magazine. Reader suggestions have not been researched or tested.

Read more advice from Mr. Green, including his Web-only mailbag, and submit your own environmental questions at

Mr. Green illustration by Melinda Beck; used with permission.

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