Over the weekend, like a lot of people in Europe, I stocked up on light bulbs. The European Union has been phasing out old-fashioned incandescent bulbs for a couple of years, and on Sept. 1 a ban on 60-watt bulbs — the most popular kind — came into effect.
Now, no nation in the EU manufactures the filament style of bulb, the kind Edison patented in 1878, at least not at 60-watt strength. (Weaker incandescents will be produced until next year.) It's legal to sell off stock, but the plan is to cut carbon emissions by compelling Europeans to buy more durable, less wasteful, but initially more expensive sources of light.
"What you have to remember is, [the new bulbs] are going to deliver enormous energy savings," Mike Simpson, a technical director at Phillips UK, told the BBC last month. "Although they'll cost a little bit more in the shops, customers will get that money back many times over in the energy they're saving."
That sounded good to me. Last year — thinking ahead — I replaced two of the most important 60-watt bulbs in my apartment with compact fluorescent lamps, or CFLs. The price difference was shocking. Instead of 80 euro cents (about a dollar), the new bulbs cost €4 euro each (about $5.65). That was five times the price, but they're meant to last eight to 15 times as long.
The light was milky and pale. Fine — I had lampshades to change the color. Promises on the box for "equivalent light" were wrong, but I'd bought more powerful bulbs just in case, and I was still saving energy. A new CFL that draws 11 watts is meant to shine as bright as a 60-watt incandescent; I bought 18-watt fluorescents and have a brighter room.
Nothing but a law could have compelled me to think so long and hard about light bulbs. But now I had to agree that incandescent bulbs were nothing but "small heaters that produce a little light," and I could see how a law might spur the market toward more sensible bulbs. For months I felt clever and satisfied that I was doing my part to save energy in Europe.
Then one of the bulbs burned out.
Just like that, it quit. My filament bulbs tend to last a year or more, but one CFL gave up the ghost after maybe six months.
I was bitter. I'd taught myself to think in terms of long-term energy savings, so the sheer waste of money and material disgusted me. I went out to buy more incandescent bulbs. Then I tried to throw the CFL away, but something on the packaging suggested it wasn't normal trash. A CFL has to be carefully recycled; it contains mercury. Breaking the glass would release mercury vapor.
Well, breaking a thermometer releases mercury, too. But light bulbs tend to break more often, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has detailed instructions for cleaning up a broken CFL: "Have people and pets leave the room. Air out the room for 5-10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment. ..."
These problems wouldn't matter much to Americans — let Europeans suffer with their silly laws — if a similar phase-out weren't coming to America next year. Starting in 2012, the U.S. will phase out 100-watt bulbs, according to an energy-savings bill passed in 2007 (under President George W. Bush). A handful of Republicans tried to roll back the law last month, without success, but it's bound to return now and then as a zombie topic on talk shows.
The law should stay, because it's already pushing markets to innovate — mercury-free bulbs are now on sale in the U.S. "They'd have carried on making this [incandescent] light bulb for another 120 years if they'd been allowed to," said Matt Prescott, who runs a British movement called Ban the Bulb, during the same BBC show that featured Simpson. "But society as a whole pays a large price, through having to build new power stations."
Maybe so. But there's nothing wrong with stocking up on incandescents.
They're a simple household bridge technology, until the industry for modern bulbs matures.