For years, consumers have been urged to switch to CFLs, or compact fluorescent lights, which use about one-quarter of the electricity of incandescent bulbs. But unknown to many, CFLs come with a health risk if they're broken: They contain small amounts of mercury, a neurotoxin that can be particularly harmful to children and pregnant women.
...."It's a public health issue and an environmental mess if they are not disposed of properly," said Rob D'Arcy, the hazardous materials program manager for Santa Clara County.
California and several other states ban disposal of CFLs in the trash because they could contaminate landfills. But there's little enforcement.
....no one has called for CFLs to be banned because, on balance, they offer a wealth of environmental and energy-saving benefits. Coal-fired power plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the air, so using CFLs, which use less electricity than incandescent light bulbs and last longer, is still a better deal for the planet.
....Heidi Sanborn, executive director of the California Product Stewardship Council, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to shift responsibility for waste management from local governments to manufacturers and producers, is among those who believe "we're still better off using fluorescents."
"But what's happened is that we're trying to keep mercury out of the air by not burning coal, and now mercury is in all of these lamps that are in people's homes," she said.
The regulations prohibiting CFLs from being disposed of in the trash went into effect in 2006, but there's no state funding attached to it. That means each county in California has had to develop its own consumer awareness and recycling program in a time of strapped budgets, and some have done a better job than others.
"This is a problem that cries out for a big, comprehensive solution," said Bill Pollock of the Alameda County Household Hazardous Waste program. "But no one has the funds to tackle it. Right now, the recycling is totally voluntary — people have to make an effort to do it."
The problem does indeed call for a comprehensive solution that solves the mercury issue and the funding issue, and the Extended Producer Responsibility proposal of my campaign can do just that.