5.27.2007

environmental questions

Impudent Strumpet, one of my Five Who Make Me Think, asks a type of question that I ask all the time, and for which I seldom see answers.
We know that fluorescent lightbulbs are better than incandescent lightbulbs. But does that mean you should throw out your perfectly good incandescents, or just replace them with fluorescents when they burn out? Does the heat generated by incandescents help in the winter when you need to heat your home anyway?

What about replacing your perfectly good old electronics and appliances with Energy Star ones? Is that worth the waste generated? Does that depend on the options available for disposing of them? What if you donated them to charity?

We know that locally-grown produce is better than imported produce. But how far is it worth driving to buy it? Is it worth driving to the local supermarket if it means you'll use fewer plastic bags?

Is it worth buying organic produce if it goes bad faster than I can eat all of it, thus requiring me to throw out some every time? Would it make a difference if my building had a composting program?

Is the extra energy required for a trip to the beer store worth it for the benefit of returning your bottles instead of putting them in the recycle box?

Is it worth washing your clothes in cold water if it reduces their lifespan (by making it more difficult for stains to come out)?

Is the energy saved by using the dryer on low temperature worth the energy spent by having it operate longer (because it takes longer to dry on cold)?

I don't know the answers to any of these questions. I don't have the information to calculate any of this. But I really wish someone would. It's one thing to self-righteously say "X is better than Y" when you're talking about only one factor, but real life consists of a multitude of factors. Give us some cost-benefit analysis!

I ask questions like these all the time, and I make up answers for myself, and I have no idea if the answer is factually correct. For example, I don't throw out working incandescents light bulbs and replace them with CFLs, because it seems wrong to throw out something that's still functioning, when it's going to stop working eventually anyway. I keep a supply of CFLs handy, and when the old incandescent burns out, I replace it with a CFL. That seems like common sense to me. But common sense is often not supported by evidence. Some things are counter-intuitive.

Now, several readers are going to pose answers to the questions here, but chances are, they are also intuiting the answers. What we need is a website or other reference that pulls together evidence-based answers to these types of questions - an environmental footprint cost-benefit analysis generator, if you will.

15 comments:

James said...

There are lots of odd complications in migrating to more efficient technologies. For example, there was a recent flap about mercury in CFLs. But the amount of mercury released into the air by breaking a CFL is much smaller than that released by burning coal to power an incandescent over its lifetime.

For that matter, any incandescent you have now will end up in a dump eventually, whether you throw it out now or later. No matter what, it's going into the garbage. If you throw it out now, it goes out without any further extra power consumption (over the CFL baseline), but if you throw it out later, it goes out with the same disposal cost but also all the extra power it burned between now and when you'll get rid of it.

Just keep one thing in mind: never put a CFL in a recessed light! They overheat and burn out very quickly, which defeats the purpose.

L-girl said...

The mercury issue is important. People have to know how to dispose of the CFLs, and that information isn't as readily available as all the info that says "buy these, they're better".

never put a CFL in a recessed light

Or a light with a dimmer switch, as I understand it.

So James, did you answer the question? I can't tell. Is it better to throw out the working incandescent and replace it or better to wait til it burns out?

And do you know any websites where these kinds of cost-benefit questions are addressed?

Scott M. said...

Actually, there are CFLs that work (albeit not that well - they hum and the light level doesn't stay steady) with dimmer switches now. You have to look specifically for ones that are so-labelled, the vast majority do not.

They also have CFLs for 3-way bulbs (which work rather well).

Where they do *not* work well (I have found) is:

a) Cooped up places where they can overheat (not enough to cause a fire like putting a 100W incandecent in a max 40W socket, but it'll shorten the life of the bulb)
b) With dimmer switches where the dimmer switch will control more than one dimmable CFL (life will be shorter than incandescant and you'll hate the even greater hum and instability of light)
c) Lights that cycle on-and-off very frequently (like a light that turns on for 5 seconds everytime someone walks by a sensor).

As well, there are still some CFLs that simply won't fit in some applications, though there are now CFLs for chandalier bulbs and other applications.

James said...

Or a light with a dimmer switch, as I understand it.

You can get dimmable ones, though they can be hard to find.

So James, did you answer the question? I can't tell. Is it better to throw out the working incandescent and replace it or better to wait til it burns out?

I answered by saying "It's complicated" and leaving it at that. ;)

In the end, if you have an incandescent bulb now, you will produce less extra waste if you throw it out right away than if you let it burn (at increased electrical consumption over CFL) over the rest of its life and throw it away then. In both cases, the bulb goes into the garbage -- no savings throwing out now vs. later -- but if you keep it until it burns out, you're using more electricity than you would if you throw it out later.

There's a slight argument to be made that, if you throw it out now, you'll be using more CFLs over the life of your fixture than you would if you kept it, but when you consider that a CFL last something like 5x as long as an incandescent, it basically means you'll be using an extra 0.2 CFL at most, but burning much more electricity over that time. Though I don't have all the numbers.

And do you know any websites where these kinds of cost-benefit questions are addressed?

No, but I'm sure there are some.

James said...

Just did a little looking up at Wikipedia, and I got some numbers off. 5x is the power consumption ratio for incandescent vs. CFL. the CFL vs incandescent life-span is 10-15x (unless you put them in a pot fixture!)

So, here's some math:

You've got an almost-new 60W incandescent bulb that you want to replace with a 12W CFL. If you wait for the bulb to die, your waste output is 1 bulb + 60,000Wh of electrical use by the time it dies, 1000 hours of use from now.

If you replace it now, your waste output at the same point in the future (1000 hours of use from now) is 1 bulb + 12,000Wh of electrical use. So you end up tapping the power grid for 48kWh less than if you kept the incandescent.

Also, regarding disposal: burning coal produces so much mercury vapour that, if you were to dispose of your CFL by smashing it, grinding it into a fine powder, and scattering it to the four winds, it'd still put less mercury into the air than an incandescent bulb's life worth of coal-burning.

L-girl said...

Scott and James, thanks for the info.

So replace it is. Cool. Also, that's very interesting about the mercury. I never would have known that.

Now for the other dozen or so questions... A reference site is needed.

Scott M. said...

One other note, you can dispose of CFLs at your local Household Hazardous Waste disposal site (in Peel Region cutely called Community Recycling Centres). I personally have dropped off CFLs at the Community Recycling Centre on my way to work in Brampton.

L-girl said...

We've been there several times. We save stuff up (batteries, flourescent bulbs, old paint cans) and bring them in there.

James said...

So replace it is. Cool. Also, that's very interesting about the mercury. I never would have known that.

The mercury stuff came to people's attention recently when Steven Milloy, the guy behind Junk Science, started going on about the evils of CFLs and how they're so dangerous it costs $2000 to have the EPA clean the mess up if you break one.

In case you don't know Junk Science, it's basically a shill sight that labels any scientific findings that are bad for established industry as "Junk Science". He's also been going on recently about how DDT is perfectly safe, global warming is a scam, and second-hand smoke poses no dangers to anyone.

Wikipedia's CFL page has a graph that was produced to refute Milloy. It shows that, over 5 years of burning an incandescent bulb, the coal-fired plants that power it will release 10mg of mercury into the air. Over 5 years of burning a CFL, the coal-fired plants will release 2.4mg of mercury -- but the CFL itself contains 4mg. If you dispose of the CFL properly, it will have been responsible for 2.4mg/5yr of burn. If you bust it open and let the mercury out, 6.4mg (provided you only bust open one per five years!).

L-girl said...

I had no idea that's where the mercury issue came from. I've seen in mentioned in many respectable places - not saying you shouldn't use CFLs or that they're worse for the environment than incandescents - just that you have to know how to dispose of them properly.

Is Milloy the anti-global-warming idiot featured in "An Inconvenient Truth"?

loneprimate said...

I suppose there's some logic in not replacing something till it actually needs replacing. But that begs the question "when does it need replacing?" There are a number of answers to this... one obvious one, of course, is "when it stops working". But the one that occurred to me and that I acted upon was "as soon as there's a less wasteful alternative". It's a waste to throw out a bulb that's still working, true. But I suspect, though I can't prove it, that the cost of standing by a bulb that converts so much electricity simply into heat, rather than light, over the course of its useful life is greater both in terms of personal expense and the impact on society and the environment when writ large over hundreds of millions of bulbs. Incandescent bulbs are the SUVs of illumination. The sooner they're off the electron roads, the better, I think.

Heat generated from the bulbs as a positive good (in winter, anyway) strikes me as a hollow argument. Most of it is, of course, generated at the ceiling, where it's useless to anyone without expending even more energy to drive it down to the floor.

Scott M. said...

I've never thrown out an incandescent. When I converted to CFLs I saved all my working incandescents and I am glad... I found that 7 of the bulbs in my house really need incandescents to work properly. Now I have a stash of incandescents to hold on to!

In case anyone is wondering which ones they are:

1&2) One set of two lights in the basement that are on a dimmer
3) A light which turns on when someone enters a sensor field and turns off 5 seconds later
4,5&6) The lights in my Fridge, Freezer and Oven (intentionally never tried another type of bulb... incandescents are the only safe ones to use)
7) One lightbulb in the garage that must brightly light immediately upon turning it on. (In winter, CFLs may start immediately but don't get to full brightness for a minute or two)

L-girl said...

Incandescent bulbs are the SUVs of illumination. The sooner they're off the electron roads, the better, I think.

Good analogy.

Heat generated from the bulbs as a positive good (in winter, anyway) strikes me as a hollow argument.

I think it was more a question than an argument. If you're relying on light bulbs for heat, better talk to the landlord...

When I converted to CFLs I saved all my working incandescents and I am glad

It's hard to throw out something that's working!

I see now I should convert all my bulbs to CFLs now, rather than wait until the old bulbs burn out. I'll put it on my post-deadline to-do list...

Of course none of this answers any of the other questions Imp Strump posed.

James said...

I had no idea that's where the mercury issue came from.

It's not necessarily where it came from, but it's what's been in the press lately. Milloy wrote a big article about a woman who dropped a CFL and, not knowing what to do, called the local EPA. They didn't really know what to do either, and quoted this silly $2000 price. The story found its way into the local press, then to Milloy, then into the national press.

Is Milloy the anti-global-warming idiot featured in "An Inconvenient Truth"?

I don't think so. There are so many of them out there...

As for the other questions:

The old appliance vs. Energy Star issue is less clear-cut than the incandescent vs. CFL one. The lifespans of the two kinds of appliances are similar (though newer ones last better than older ones, in general), so the number of units to make it into landfill isn't an issue. But the "get the guzzler off the road" argument does still apply.

Donating is not a bad idea -- reuse is better than recycle, after all. But I would have no idea how to work out the math to figure out if it's actually advantageous overall to take that route.

My own notion is that, if more well-off folks converted as much as possible to Energy Star appliances and donated their old ones to less well-off people, at least then there would be fewer new inefficient appliances going online and consuming excess energy for years and years. Maybe people having a hand-me-down that'll last five more years will help tide people over until Energy Star units drop in price more.

The locally vs remotely grown produce question depends on the produce. Between buying, say, Niagara wine vs. French wine? Almost certainly worth driving -- no air or sea travel (very fuel inefficient) gets involved in getting the wine to your home. Oranges? Maybe not -- sure, they have to be driven from Florida, but the fuel-per-orange for getting a million oranges from Florida to Toronto may be lower than the fuel-per-orange getting a million oranges from orchards to 100,000 different houses in 100,000 separate car trips.

In the end, it all boils down to, "it's not as simple as we'd like it to be". Hydroelectric power -- no emissions! But it destroys ecologies in the flooded valleys. Solar -- no emissions! But large solar arrays can cause local climate changes by changing the heat profile of the area they're built on. Electric cars -- but dangerous heavy metals in batteries. Etc.

(BTW, the mercury issue for CFL changes when we get away from coal-fired plants, which are responsible for the bulk of incandescent mercury emissions, but only 1/3 of CFL mercury emissions)

L-girl said...

In the end, it all boils down to, "it's not as simple as we'd like it to be".

Yeah, what is, ever.

Thanks for this, James, it's great.