This opinion piece by bunaglow author and expert Jane Powell ran in Sunday’s San Francisco Chronicle. I found it to be a very thoughtful piece, and well worth sharing.
One of Ms. Powell’s most compelling arguments, which I think applies to most of us who are in the process of breathing new life into an old home or building, is that it may be far more healthy for our planet to retrofit an existing building using recycled and salvaged materials than it is to build something new, no matter how “green” the building materials may be. Certainly, there are plenty scenarios in which building new makes good sense, but so often nowadays, people seem to buy sturdy, charming old homes in established neighborhoods, only to knock them down to make way for new trophy McMansions (some of which won’t even last as long as the mortgages taken out to build them.) It’s tragic enough to see a gorgeous old home with lots of life left in it reduced to dust. It’s sickening to ponder the tremendous waste involved when so much raw material (lathe, flooring, windows and more) is demolished, rather than recycled. No matter how much bamboo flooring and low-VOC paint the replacement structure contains, it can’t possibly counterbalance all that waste.
Another issue this piece confronts is the true value of compact fluorescent lightbulbs. May I just take a moment to say that I despise them? (Just to be clear, Julio doesn’t abhor them like I abhor them. This is my rant, not his.) We found some we could live with for our house, and we plan to recycle them when the time comes, but that doesn’t make me hate them any less. Not only is the harsh blue light overwhelming and ugly, but CFLs contain mercury. With the huge push going on right now to try to convince everyone to make the switch to CFLs, why don’t we hear more about the mercury they contain? Some folks will argue that each bulb contains only a tiny amount of mercury, so what’s the big deal? But most homes don’t use a single light bulb, they use dozens. And we live in a country of just over 300 million people – all of those lightbulbs (and all of that mercury) will no doubt add up, and yet, how often do you read about the proper way of disposing of (recycling) a compact fluorescent bulb? Not often! I think most people just toss them in the trash. Think about that! Is it just me, or does it seem that by introducing all of that toxic mercury into our landfills, we’re really just trading one environmental woe for another by using CFLs?
One thing the article doesn’t mention is the recent invention of the “super incandescent” bulb – something I am personally very excited about, although it is still a few years away from being marketed to the public. Supposedly the super incandescent bulb will offer that warm incandescent glow we all know and love, but will last twice as long as a regular incandescent lightbulb – and hey, guess what? No mercury! LED lightbulbs are also starting to show up in the marketplace and their big advantage is that in addition to being an efficient source of light, they give off a light that is much more similar to daylight than that generated by a CFL.
Canada and Australia have already banned incandescent bulbs. Calfornia seems determined to do the same. New Jersey and the United Kingdom are weighing taking similar action. Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for demanding more efficient options, and I am absolutely behind making changes that will benefit or preserve the environment. But are CFLs really the best solution?
I think that before we all go crazy and jump on the CFL bandwagon, it might be a good idea to investigate what widespread CFL usage will ultimately mean to our environment. If we don’t study the issue now, I predict that ten years from now, we’ll be reading all about the push to ban CFLs and scientists will be scrambling to figure out a way to deal with the toxic levels of mercury in our groundwater. Not exactly the “greenest” of outcomes…
OK – I will step down from my (mercury-free) soap box now.