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Low Energy Light Bulbs Not So "Green" After All?

By Professor Chris Rhodes | Thu, 24 January 2013 22:54 | 10

Making choices about the kind of light bulbs we should be using, on the simple basis of energy consumption, and hence carbon emissions, may be a little short-sighted. Thus, the old fashioned incandescent bulbs are no longer commonly on sale, though there is something of a black market in them, due to the poorer quality of light given out by their alternatives - low-power CFLs (compact fluorescent light bulbs) and LEDs (light emitting diodes).

The first incandescent (filament) bulb was invented by Joseph Swan, who gave the first public demonstration of the device at a lecture in Newcastle upon Tyne, in the north east of England, on 18 December 1878. Swan later illuminated his house, in neighbouring Gateshead, by means of the technology. Credit for the incandescent bulb is often, but incorrectly, given to Thomas Edison, who invented it independently, but later than Swan. In 1881, the Savoy Theatre in London was lit by Swan incandescent light bulbs; the first theatre and the first public building in the world to be lit entirely by electrical power. The basic principle of the incandescent bulb has changed little in the past 135 years, of which the main criticism is that most of the energy consumed by the bulb is discarded as heat, rather than providing useful light.

Despite the wide, and almost exclusive, adoption of CFLs and LEDs in place of the original design, a life-cycle analysis http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es302886m has shown that there may be an environmental legacy, beyond carbon emissions, or their reduction, in the form of toxic metals, especially copper, lead, mercury and zinc, with smaller amounts of arsenic and antimony, which needs to be given greater consideration. The analysis accounts both for the metals that are present and their expected lifetimes in the environment, and concludes that both CFLs and LEDs should be classified as hazardous waste, in particular because of their lead content, which can be leached at 132 and 44 mg/l, respectively, and well above the accepted threshold of 5mg/l.. The amount of copper is also at issue, being 111,000 and 31,600 mg/kg respectively, in comparison with the accepted limit of 2500 mg/kg.

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In their favour, both devices last far longer and consume considerably less power than do incandescent bulbs; nonetheless, the presence of heavy metals is concluded to impart some 3 -- 26 times the environmental burden for CFLs, while LEDs are deemed to be worse overall by a factor of 2 -- 3 than their more established counterpart. It is concluded that not only must energy consumption be taken into account, but that a reduction in the levels of toxic materials incurred in the manufacture of such "green" technology should be factored in to the design.

These results represent an alternative reality, in terms of our use of materials, since they tacitly illustrate the point that the final disposal/reuse of materials used in the manufacture of all appliances and devices must be designed-in to the processes through which they are created. The supply of various elements is at issue, and efficient means for recycling them is the only way to avoid running out of, e.g. indium, helium, and many other vital materials within only a decade or so http://ergobalance.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/shortage-of-resources-for-renewable.html. The notion of the circular economy http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Circular_economy is the overarching example of this line of thinking, which follows the patterns of Nature, in which there is no such thing as "waste". Everything in the natural world is recycled, e.g. though such processes as the soil food web, providing energy and materials among an holistically interacting community of organisms, at a population of billions in a teaspoonful of soil http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soil_food_web.

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In principle, we can reuse materials to fabricate new and replacement technology, so long as we have sufficient available energy to do this. It is the loss of cheap energy, particularly in the form of liquid fuels refined from petroleum, that will set an ultimate limit to the extent by which human civilization is underpinned by technology. When this begins to fail, we may nonetheless draw from the design models of nature, in adopting lower energy, intermediate technology paradigms, such as are found in the principles of permaculture http://www.permaculture.org.uk/. Hence the environmental problems accorded from low energy light bulbs, and carbon emissions, will no longer be a feature for us, once we have become reconnected with the natural world.

By. Professor Chris Rhodes

About the author

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Low Energy Light Bulbs Not So "Green" After All?

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  • David Quinn on January 25 2013 said:
    Are LED's 2-3 times worse than CFL's or 2-3 times worse than incandescent bulbs, in environmental burden?

    And is this burden calculated just from the manufacture of the lights, or does it include the energy used to run them for a given amount of time, say 10 years (which would then include replacements for the CFL's and incandescents)?
  • ComradeAnon on January 25 2013 said:
    Then traditional fluorescent tubes are an unmitigated disaster. They been produced with even larger amounts of mercury for decades. But I suspect that the technology will improve even more on the LEDs. I see CFLs as being used less and less as LEDs fall in price.
  • TIM on January 25 2013 said:
    In cold weather the energy consumed by incandescent bulbs and discarded as heat is not wasted energy. Any comparative study needs to take this into account.
  • Mutant for Nuclear Power on January 25 2013 said:
    It is not a light bulb that is going to kill me. You can't save everyone. Something to think about while your sitting in traffic.
  • JL Robb on January 25 2013 said:
    I've been in the energy conservation field for 35 years. Incandescent lamps have a lot of proactivists, evern though they use 4-5 tiomes as much energy as CFLs and LEDs. That means less mercury and other carcinogen pollutants are produced by the power plants. The fluorescent lamp, introduced in the 1920s, had 6-10 times more mercury than fluorescent lamps (4' tubes T8) today. The 4' T8 and T5 fluorescent lamps of today have about 25% of the mercury of the older T12 lamps. LEDs contain cancer causing ingredients but the amount is negligible. You breath in more carcinogens everyday from automobile exhaust, and diesel fumes. I have used CFLs since 1990 in my home, as well as LED's and don't have an incandescent lamp in my home. My lighting costs are about 1/4 the cost of a home with incandescent. With tht said, it's America. If you want to pay more and spend more to operate incandescent lamps, go for it.
  • mike el on January 25 2013 said:
    i find it hard to believe that the agencies govts etc couldnt foresee that these CFL bulbs would end up polluting lands with mercury.

    Somewhere along the way some exec must have been paid huge sums to get rid of industrial mercury waste. "lets hide it in lightbulbs. No one'll ever find it."
  • A Pugh man on January 26 2013 said:
    Clearly as a chemist, I can see the benefit of LED's but not the mercury laced CFLs. Mercury is bad for you in any amount other than what is known as a trace amount and that would be almost nothing. The truth is LED's use way less electricity and create less pollution in a double edged sword affect. Since LED's will break down eventually and be discarded to a landfill, people tend to think the trade off is bad. I think otherwise as the alternative is really more pollution that effects daily living. Yes the old lights were less toxic but created a greater need for electricity than the modern bulbs thus creating a greater burden on natural resources and harming all things biological more than the LED's ever will. Less mercury and Arsenic in the atmosphere from a coal fired plant would be better than more. It also would mean less pollution in the drinking water supply. There is no way we to measure how much it costs health care to treat symptoms of a large exposure group but we do know when a heavy metal gets in the body it affects the brain and bodily functions. In essence creating brain damaged people which might be one reason people are stupid enough to vote crooks back into government offices. You know, the ones who pretend to help the people while they steal money for their family and friends in plain site and then a get a pass in the media. Then they laugh at us for arguing over what light bulbs they give us instead of how well, or not, they do their job. Buy LED's made in America! Avoid CFLs at all cost and get rid of the old mercury vapor tube lights too. I agree with Mike el!
  • jdc15 on January 27 2013 said:
    Yes, I agree that the flourescents are not the true energy and environemntal savers they were claimed to be. I do believe that LED lighting is the future, and will be the best possible source of economic lighting the solar going forward.

    Now when can we also discuss the solar panel, and the unmitigated disaster that awaits when it's time to dispose of millions, if not billions, of poisonous outdated panels? An environmental nightmare is coming from the rush to implement green energy before it was fully vetted. Even today's solar panels are not nearly as ecologically friendly as the pushers want you to believe. You can't dig a hole deep enough to eradicate the toxic waste that's coming.
  • Cees Timmerman on January 28 2013 said:
    There are guides to see how polluting your electronics are: http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/Guide-to-Greener-Electronics/

    LED (Light Emitting Diode) is great, but LEP (Light Emitting Plasma) is even better: http://www.luxim.com/

    Both are still expensive, though, so halogen lightbulbs are probably best for occasional use.
  • Recolight on January 30 2013 said:
    The typical amount of mercury in a Gas Discharge Lamp (GDL) is between 1.2 to 4mg, and in a domestic CFL this equates to the tip of a ballpoint pen. One mercury in one CFL is not enough to pose a health risk but they do need to be disposed of responsibly to reduce the risk of large quantities of mercury ending up in landfill. In Europe the collection and recycling of GDLs is compulsory under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. In the UK, not-for-profit scheme Recolight was set up by the lighting industry to provide free lamp recycling to businesses and consumers. Visit www.recolight.co.uk to find your nearest collection point.

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