The Infamous Light Bulb Law: What the Tea Party, Environmentalists, Government, and Manufacturers Have in Common

While a light bulb may seem like a trivial item, it has incited momentous debate. To energy efficiency advocates, the light bulb symbolizes the opportunity to upgrade an Edison-era technology, save money, and reduce greenhouse gases and other environmental impacts. In the Tea Party’s eyes, the light bulb is a prime example of an overly pervasive government dictating what items we can install in our private homes. To me, many actors – Republicans and Democrats, environmental groups and anti-government cheerleaders – have turned the lights out on the public, muddling and oversimplifying a complex issue.

In 2007, President George W. Bush, signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act, which requires light bulb manufacturers to improve household bulb efficiency by 30 percent and phase-out 100- and 40-watt bulbs between 2012 to 2014. The law exempts “specialty bulbs” like those for chandeliers, and does not mandate using any particular type of energy-efficient bulb.

Not only was the federal bill signed into law by a staunch Republican, but it also had overwhelming bipartisan support. The House passed the bill 314-100 following its 86-8 passage in the Senate. Lighting manufacturers and retailers also heavily favored passage of the bill. “We support the notion that efficiency is a desirable thing, and this type of standard has been a part of our body politic for a long time,” said Randall Moorhead, vice president of government affairs at Philips, earlier this year.

The Energy Independence and Security Act was also touted as a way to lower our foreign oil dependency. Although many of us have warmed to the glow of incandescent bulbs, the U.S. EPA notes that 90 percent of an incandescent bulb’s required energy is wasted as heat, meaning increased use of scarce and highly polluting natural resources such as oil and coal. The Natural Resources Defense Council also predicted annual savings of $13 billion in energy costs and a yearly reduction of 100 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions.

Before the bill was introduced, technology gurus were at work developing energy-efficient alternatives. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, one such alternative – compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) – use 75 percent less energy and last 10 times longer than traditional incandescents. The U.S. Department of Energy asserts that, over its lifetime, a 25-watt CFL actually costs a consumer $105 less than a 100-watt incandescent, factoring in the cost of the bulb and energy usage.

Manufacturers began rolling out CFLs in bundles, large retailers marketed energy-efficient bulbs to the masses with huge discounts, and consumers switched to CFLs and light emitting diodes (LEDs). Unfortunately, supporters of this well-intended light bulb law did not finish their homework. Many consumers are dissatisfied with the performance of the alternative bulbs. And worse, no one mentioned that CFLs contain small amounts of mercury and, therefore, need to be recycled once they burn out. In addition, no one explained that CFLs can break, although not nearly as easily as their well-known cousins, the linear fluorescent lamp known worldwide by anyone who works in an office or does home improvement projects. The fact that breakup cleanup is easy and not particularly hazardous (but needs to be done right) further botched communication with the public.

Does the Tea Party have something to howl about? Yes it does. But they are howling at the wrong moon, missing a golden opportunity to help the public by meaningfully addressing the real issues. To this day, lighting manufacturers are fighting legislation that would require them to create recycling programs for their product. They want taxpayers, not consumers, to cover the cost.

What does this all mean? The adoption of the Energy Independence and Security Act has certainly created chaos. Proper planning for the law’s implementation was bungled by government, manufacturers, retailers, and environmental groups. Was it well intended? Absolutely. Should we roll back the clock? No. The potential for energy savings, pollution reduction, and cost savings for consumers in the long-run are too great to sacrifice for Tea Party enthusiasts who want to shrink government into nonexistence.

What do we do now? One solution is to make sure that manufacturers of these mercury products take responsibility for recycling burned out bulbs. Also, retailers promoting the sale of the bulbs must be part of the solution, collecting bulbs voluntarily and/or alerting consumers that the bulbs must be recycled and directing consumers to convenient drop-off locations. We must also learn from this mistake on a larger scale. Manufacturers of products should account for the product’s full lifecycle impact and factor the ultimate fate of a product’s materials into a plan for recycling or proper disposal.

Government officials, environmental groups, and PSI have all succeeded in Maine, Washington, and Vermont in mandating that fluorescent lamp manufacturers pay for recycling spent mercury lamps. We hoped that this industry would recognize the need for leadership without our persuasion. But all involved parties must now roll up their sleeves and find joint solutions to past mistakes. One thing we don’t need, however, is the drone of anti-government accusations taking the spotlight off more significant issues.

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2 thoughts on “The Infamous Light Bulb Law: What the Tea Party, Environmentalists, Government, and Manufacturers Have in Common

  1. Interesting article. Two things: I’ve tried to use CFLs as much as I can, but there’s a problem with them nobody talks about. They come with a warning statement that says “not to be used in enclosed recessed fixtures”, or sometimes “in totally enclosed fixtures”. Well, in my house built in the 1950s, that rules them out in half of the sockets in my house. The other issue is the breakage. You’re right that cleaning up a broken bulb isn’t that hard and that there’s a right way to do it. The problem then becomes disposal. We have a broken CFL (we though it would fit in a new light fixture; it didn’t and it shattered) stored properly in a sealed jar in our garage. It cannot legally be placed in our regular garbage, and obviously it can’t be recycled (many stores in Maine do take used CFLs for recycling, including the Lowe’s near my home). The only legal method of disposal is to bring it to my city’s landfill, pay a waste fee of $8–and that’s a 20 mile round trip drive. Nobody talks about this problem with CFLs either.

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