Switching to energy-saver lightbulbs is the first step people usually take when ‘going green.’ Here in Harare, Zimbabwe Electricity Supply Authority (ZESA) helped us take the step with their campaign to promote the take up of the bulbs. But are we ready?
Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), marketed as energy-saver bulbs, have now become common in many households. They are far more efficient than incandescent lamps (filament light bulbs), on average using a quarter of the electricity expended by conventional bulbs to produce the same amount of light. They also last up to fifteen times longer and produce far less heat.
Making the switch will certainly save you on your electricity bills but it’s also important to understand some of the disadvantages of using the bulbs.
The first of these is the threat they can pose to human health. According to the European Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR), energy-saver bulbs emit ultraviolet and blue light which can aggravate symptoms in people who suffer from skin conditions. Continuous exposure to the light at short distances of less than 20cm can cause skin cancer and damage to the retina of the eye. Try not to sit too close!
Secondly, energy-savers contain mercury, a substance that Zimbabwe and 140 other countries are seeking to ban in industrial applications such as gold processing. Each energy-saver contains three to five milligrams of mercury vapour. Mercury is a powerful neurotoxin that accumulates as methyl mercury in the environment and in the bodies of animals. It causes developmental problems and physical deformities in humans and can affect animals’ ability to reproduce.
When the glass part of the bulb is broken this small amount of mercury vapour will be released. If you do break the bulb, open the windows in the room and leave it unoccupied for fifteen minutes. Disposable gloves should be used to clean up the broken pieces and a damp paper towel should be used to wipe the area. The broken bulb, the glove and paper towel should then be sealed up in a plastic bag. A vacuum cleaner should not be used. The ideal way to dispose of a burned-out energy-saver is through a recycling program or a household hazardous waste program but with no provision for disposal currently in place in Harare, the best available option is to wrap the bulb in newspaper and seal it inside two plastic bags before placing it in municipal bins. They should never be burned.
According to Tatenda Manyuchi, an Environmental Scientist, “Due to the minute amounts of mercury present, energy savers will only pose a serious health threat if they are dumped at a landfill in large quantities.” Manyuchi calls on the EMA [Environmental Management Agency] to inform the public on how to dispose of energy savers correctly.
The bulbs are an important energy-saving innovation but it’s essential for ZESA to make adequate provisions for their proper disposal and recycling, while EMA should carry out an Environmental Impact Assessment and formulate regulations that prohibit the disposal of energy-saver bulbs in municipal waste. Energy saver suppliers should supply instructions for safe handling of broken and old bulbs in the packaging while retailers can set up recycling bins for their safe disposal.
For other recycling enquiries call Environment Africa on 492143/152.