The Rush to Ban Incandescent Light Bulbs and Plastic Bags

Life-cycle analysis shows energy costs and pollution from the "solutions" will create new problems

The ways you bring food home from the grocery store and light up your living room could change soon if lawmakers succeed in their efforts to turn some everyday household items into kitchen contraband – light bulbs and grocery bags.

Australia, the European Union, Britain, several Canadian provinces, and state legislatures in Connecticut, North Carolina, Rhode Island and California are among those who have already proposed or enacted bans on the sale of incandescent light bulbs in the next few years.

Last month, San Francisco became the first city in the country to ban non-biodegradable plastic grocery bags in hopes of reducing litter and conserving petroleum. Phoenix, Boston, Portland and New York state are among those considering following suit.

In the push for this unprecedented legislation, Greenpeace recently named light bulb manufacturer Philips Electronics a “climate criminal.” Some politicians and environmentalists believe both the light bulb and plastic bag bans will reduce the use of fossil fuels, greenhouse gas emissions and environmental toxins. However, the environmental cost-benefit analyses of these products and their most likely replacements present mixed results at best.

The compact fluorescent light bulbs expected to replace today’s incandescent bulbs actually require more energy to produce and ship to stores than traditional bulbs do. Fluorescent bulbs recoup the difference in initial costs through energy savings and longer service (a single fluorescent bulb is expected to use approximately one-fourth of the energy used by a traditional bulb and last six to 10 times longer). Unfortunately, fluorescent bulbs also contain small amounts of toxic mercury, meaning they need to be recycled properly rather than being thrown away at the end of their use.

Because fluorescents constitute roughly 10-20 percent of light bulbs in U.S. homes and, of those, only 2 percent are recycled, the costs of disposal-environmentally and financially-could increase exponentially in coming years, depending on patterns of use. Though the amount of mercury in a fluorescent bulb is small, some of it inevitably is released into the environment when bulbs are broken, either as they are (illegally) trucked to landfills, incinerated, or processed by hazardous waste handlers. The most at-risk for mercury poisoning are people and animals that eat fish from aquatic environments where mercury accumulates.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency suggests that compact fluorescent bulbs, which contain an average of 4-6 milligrams (mg) of mercury per unit, are responsible for less mercury released into the environment than incandescent bulbs because “a power plant will emit 10 mg of mercury to produce the electricity to run an incandescent bulb compared to only 2.4 mg of mercury to run a fluorescent for the same time.” But that’s assuming that all the electricity comes from coal power. In places where the electricity comes from cleaner sources-like California (only 16 percent of electricity in California comes from coal; nationwide, coal accounts for less than 50 percent of electricity generation)-the balance of life-cycle mercury pollution shifts back in favor of the incandescent bulb.

A similar balance is found between the production costs of paper and plastic grocery bags. Life-cycle analyses have shown that energy costs, solid waste, air and water pollution generated by the manufacturing and use of plastic bags is significantly lower than for paper grocery bags. But here, too, there’s at least one exception-if paper bags are recycled at a rate of more than 50 percent, the energy costs of production can be less for paper than plastic.

Bag bans also attempt to address wildlife impacts of plastic bags, a topic that deserves separate consideration. Plastic litter isn’t a major problem in all U.S. cities; where it is, plastic bags are only a part of the problem. Improving urban wastewater systems so that they route less litter to waterways and making sure that plastic bags don’t blow away and “escape” from landfills can help to keep litter of all kinds out the marine environment, where it does the most damage.

The alternatives to plastic bags have their own unique drawbacks. Paper bag manufacturing impacts wildlife habitat through the logging and milling of trees. Plant-based plastics may someday play an important role in reducing non-biodegradable litter impacts on wildlife-but for now, they require processing that essentially combines the impacts of both paper and conventional plastic bag manufacturing (first growing and harvesting the crops, then manufacturing the plastic) and are largely untested in either commercial or environmental settings. Ensuring that biodegradable plastics do not interfere with the recycling of conventional plastics is a challenge that San Francisco and other cities may face in the future if more plant-based products are introduced. In 2005, Los Angeles opted to improve recycling rates of conventional plastic bags rather than create taxes or incentives to promote use of biodegradable plastics.

Averages also lie. We’re told the average household has 45 light bulb sockets and Californians each use about 552 disposable plastic bags per year-but a quick count tells me that no such “average people” live on my block-we all use substantially less. Individual circumstances vary, which is why it is so important that policy allow households to economize energy use on their own terms.

The mixed results from environmental analysis of light bulbs and grocery bags shows why any ban on these consumer goods will inevitably result in unnecessary waste and pollution in some circumstances. A ban binds us and forces us to use a single tool, regardless of the task at hand.

As evidenced in a spike of compact fluorescent light bulb use during the California electricity crisis in 2001, consumers respond to energy prices with more conservative purchases. A bag or bulb ban comes at it from entirely the wrong side: forcing consumers to buy something that costs them several times more than the standard item without a clear benefit.

There is real dissonance in the histories of fluorescent bulbs and plastic grocery bags from a consumer perspective. In the first instance, there’s a product that has for the most part been more popular with policymakers than consumers, and which, over a period of more than 20 years has gained only marginal market share despite massive government procurement programs, giveaways, and now take-back programs funded by taxes and utility rates. In the second instance, a product so unequivocally more economical and easier to work with that retailers in the U.S. provide it for free to customers who would otherwise gladly buy it. Guess which one is getting banned.