“Green building” not quite as simple as it sounds?

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.

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3 thoughts on ““Green building” not quite as simple as it sounds?

  1. Thanks for this great post, Stephanie! I had no idea compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) contain mercury. I have a few of them in my place and I’m with you — the light they give off is not pleasant. I use them for the front porch light because the cover softens the light and makes it less yucky.

    You make a great point about how we sometimes, in trying to do something noble, end up making things worse instead. I’m a huge proponent of alternative fuels and am trying to educate myself on the potential risks around using food crops for fuel. But that’s another topic…

    Wikipedia has some information on the environmental impact of CFLs:

    http//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compact_fluorescent_lamp#Environmental_issues

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  2. Psymonetta: That’s something I hadn’t even considered. I’m sure it’s an issue for a number of people. Kinda makes you wonder – what happens if indandescent bulb bans become widespread? Will people with photosensitivity issues need a prescription to purchase a lightbulb?!?!?

    Steve: Hey stranger – great link! Thanks to you, I just learned something new – I had no idea that CFLs didn’t function properly under 32 degrees F. Weird. Guess there won’t be a big demand for them at most ski resorts – at least not outdoors! 🙂

    I don’t mean to sound like a complete freak about CFLs, I just feel like the mercury issue has the potential to become a big problem and yet it’s an issue the public is largely unaware of. Since LED technology is already available to the consumer, and the super incandenscent isn’t far behind, instead of trying to strong-arm the public into making the switch to CFLs exclusively, why not look at the pros and cons of each of our options before getting all hyped up about one that may not be completely benign. As I said above, I get that the amount of mercury in each bulb is very small, but multiply that by 20 – 30 bulbs (or more) per household, and multiply that by our country’s population, and then keep in mind that lightbulbs need to be replaced periodically – shiver! That’s a LOT of mercury. I know that bulb recycling programs exist, but seriously, how many people are using them? As you said, you didn’t know that CFLs contained mercury. I think many (most?) people don’t. And if people don’t know they contain mercury, and don’t know that they need to be recycled, then the recycling programs aren’t very helpful, are they? Millions of bulbs are destined to end up landfills. The way I see it, that is a problem.

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