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  Sierra Magazine
  July/August 2007
Table of Contents
Green From the Ground Up
It Takes a Village
Remodeling Right
Home-Front Ecology
Picture Saving the Planet
Interview: Rachel Ackoff
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Lay of the Land
Good Going
The Green Life
Hey Mr. Green
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hey mr. green
Mr. Green's July 1, 2007, 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

Pox on Fox

Hey Mr. Green,
My whole family had embraced the concept of compact fluorescent bulbs (because they are so efficient), but a negative report from Fox News about their mercury hazards has us a little confused. Can you respond to our concern? --Carl in Center Moriches, New York

Hey Carl,
Thank you for calling my attention to this hatchet job, which I never would have noticed because I try to avoid the right-wing contrivances that Fox peddles as fair and balanced.

The people at Fox News are either brain-damaged from huffing mercury (they do seem to have a fondness for the highly toxic) or they have unscrupulously cherry-picked their facts. (In their sniping about the rules to replace incandescents with compact fluorescents [CFLs] "either adopted or being considered in California, Canada, the European Union and Australia," it's surprising that they overlooked the bulb-replacement programs in Cuba and Venezuela. That would've given them a fine opportunity to present compact fluorescent bulbs as part of a communist takeover.)

This classic example of enviro-bashing is full of flaws. First, the Fox writer trots out one report of one environmental bureaucrat's overreaction to a bulb breakage to make it sound like a busted CFL will turn a house into a Superfund site. The fact is, CFLs do contain mercury, but nowhere near enough to provoke panic or evacuation. If you break a bulb, you can do the cleanup yourself, without renting a moon suit or contacting authorities.

The EPA advises the following treatment:

  1. Open a window and leave the room for at least 15 minutes (to let the mercury vaporize).

  2. Remove all materials (i.e., the pieces of the broken bulb) without using a vacuum cleaner. You don't want even a small amount of mercury lurking in your vacuum. To do so:

    • Wear disposable rubber gloves, if available. (Never touch the bulb pieces with your bare hands.)
    • Carefully scoop up the fragments and powder with stiff paper or cardboard (you don't want the stuff to get on your broom or dustpan either).
    • Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel or disposable wet wipe. Sticky tape, such as duct tape (yet another use for the versatile material!), can be used to pick up small pieces and powder.

  3. Place all cleanup materials in a plastic bag and seal it. If your state permits you to put used or broken CFLs in the garbage, seal the CFL in two plastic bags and put into the outside trash (if no other disposal or recycling options are available). If your state doesn't allow this, consult the local hazardous-waste authority for safe-recycling information. Some hardware stores will also accept old bulbs; to find a recycler near you, try Earth 911, or (800) CLEAN-UP, for a location near you.

  4. Wash your hands after disposing of the bag.

  5. The first time you vacuum the area where the bulb was broken, remove the vacuum bag once done cleaning the area (or empty and wipe the canister) and put the bag and/or vacuum debris, as well as the cleaning materials, in two sealed plastic bags in the outdoor trash or protected outdoor location for normal disposal.

So much for that part of Fox's story, but I'm not quite done with calling them on their hokum. So read on, if you wish. The Fox piece chides environmentalists for contradicting themselves by promoting fluorescent lightbulbs while having "whipped up so much fear of mercury among the public that many local governments have even launched mercury thermometer exchange programs" and going "berserk at the thought of mercury being emitted from power plants."

Yes, as Fox notes, a fluorescent bulb contains around 5 milligrams of mercury (although some brands, such as Philips Lighting, claim their bulbs have as little as 1.23 to 3 milligrams). What Fox conveniently doesn't bother to mention is that a thermometer can contain 140 times as much mercury as a fluorescent lightbulb, making concern about these instruments eminently reasonable. Nor is it exactly going "berserk" to worry about mercury from power plants. Coal-burning power plants emit 50 tons of the stuff every year, around 40 percent of the total mercury emissions in the United States.

Since residential lighting accounts for about 5.7 percent of our total national electricity consumption--about half of which is generated by coal--creating power for home lighting releases about 1.4 tons of mercury every year. And since incandescent bulbs account for about 88 percent of all bulbs, they are responsible for emitting around 1.2 tons of mercury a year.

Let's imagine for a moment that all 4 billion residential lightbulbs have become CFLs, each one with an average life span of 5.5 years (the minimum for EPA-approved bulbs). That means we'd have to change about 727 million fluorescent bulbs a year. At five milligrams of mercury per bulb, that adds up to about four tons of mercury. Since fluorescents use only 25 percent as much energy as incandescents, installing them in all houses would decrease mercury emissions from power plants by 0.9 tons a year.

So even in the incredibly unlikely scenario that every single dead bulb were smashed, and its contents released into the environment, switching to CFLs would yield a maximum 3.1 tons of mercury each year--the 4 tons in them minus the 0.9 tons of emissions they offset. (If all bulbs used were the longer-lived models, with a life span of nine years, the net emission would drop to 1.9 tons annually even if not a single bulb got recycled. And as lower-mercury bulbs came online, the net release would drop even more.)

Fox simply ignores the fact that people don't have to throw away all those burned-out fluorescents in the first place. About 25 percent are already being recycled, just because the government requires businesses to do so. If consumers were better educated about compact fluorescents, they would recycle more of them, as they have learned to do with other materials. If we created an economic incentive--a stiff deposit on CFLs, for example--recycling rates would vastly increase, just as they have with cans and bottles in states where container deposits are required.

Of course, by focusing on mercury, Fox also fails to note that even the shorter-lived fluorescents would eliminate about 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants alone, and an equivalent amount of other pollutants. That's something to weigh heavily even against the heavy metal mercury.

Mr. Green

Beating a Dead Bulb

Hey Mr. Green,
I've been told that although compact fluorescent lightbulbs require much less electricity than incandescents to stay lit--making them generally more energy efficient--the surge of electric current they draw to light up can make incandescents the thriftier choice where lights are left on only briefly (such as in a stairway). True? And if so, roughly how long does a light need to stay on for a fluorescent bulb to be the better option? --Richard in Trumansburg, New York

Hey Richard,
I've addressed this question before, but will do so again and again until the entire world understands that the power surge needed to ignite a compact fluorescent lightbulb is very brief and uses only as much electricity as that bulb would require in five seconds of regular operation. Since a fluorescent uses only one-fourth to one-third as much energy as an incandescent, this means that it takes less than two seconds for the fluorescent to surpass the incandescent in efficiency.

One technicality, however (darn these exceptions): If you leave a room and are going to return in less than 15 minutes, it's probably best to leave the fluorescent on. This is because turning fluorescents off and on at short intervals can decrease the life of the bulb. So, for brief intervals, as in your stairwell example, an incandescent could possibly be the better choice, not because of the energy savings, but because you'd want your more expensive fluorescents to live long enough to make them cost-effective and give you the maximum possible return on your investment.

Speaking of fluorescents' life spans, when they do burn out, make sure you recycle them properly (again, try Earth 911 or 800-CLEAN-UP), because, as detailed above, fluorescents contain tiny amounts of mercury, which is very toxic. Just don't make a special trip in a car to recycle a bulb, or you might offset its energy savings!

Mr. Green

Get on the Bus

Hey Mr. Green,
My biggest peeves with our school district are its irresponsibility with money and its poor priorities. Within the last bunch of years, the district rebuilt and renovated all its schools--the high school, the junior high, and eight elementary schools--built a new administration building, Astroturfed the football field and rubberized the track, and put a totally new HVAC system in the high school. Yet nothing was done regarding traffic flow.

Although busing is mandatory for kids in the third grade and below, students at the junior high and senior high must live two or three miles, respectively, from the school to get bus transportation. No city bus passes are provided. Hence, many parents transport their kids by car. The traffic is horrendous, and the amount of gas being wasted on a daily basis is even worse. Think there's a little hole in the ozone layer over our district? --Sue in Rochester, New York

Hey Sue,
I don't blame you for being upset. Of course, if I were running the district with my green iron fist, I'd require all those lazy, pampered kids to walk or bike to school, like in the old days.

They'd probably shed more of their junk-food-and-soda blubber with that routine than they would shuffling around the freshly rubberized track, and they'd be having creative conversations and flirtations on the way home instead of getting to the couch quicker and snacking away while stunting their little brains with TV, video games, or the institutionalized narcissism of MySpace.

However, since such a healthy reform would be considered child abuse in today's overmonitored world, I recommend that you estimate how many total miles parents have to drive to haul the kids to school. Then multiply the mileage by 52 cents, which is the average cost of car operation according to the American Automobile Association. Next, compute the total time parents spend on these daily trips during the school year, and multiply it by the average hourly wage in your town. Then add these two amounts and compare them to the cost of extra school buses, drivers, and fuel.

I don't know what result you'll come up with, but I have a strong suspicion that the price of individual car transportation--including both operating costs and time--will greatly exceed that of buses for these kids. People are often amazed when presented with the hidden costs of automobiles--and that's not even considering the health and environmental toll of the emissions from all those traffic-clogged cars.

If you aren't inclined to dig up the data and make these calculations yourself, then you should demand that the school district's bean counters do so. Given the amount of money they've been allocating, they must know something about number crunching, even if they're doing it as recklessly as you say. If the numbers work out like I think they will, the next step is to use this data to lobby the district to make buses more widely available.

Mr. Green

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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