To Green or Not To Green?

By Jon Gibson

It usually happens at a dinner party, that beloved forum for discussing the latest news, gossip, and fascinating new half-remembered scientific facts. Some smug know-it-all, while dipping an asparagus spear into mayonnaise, calmly informs all present that, “Those compact fluorescents, the ones that last for 20 years and use 80 per cent less electricity? Full of mercury. Lethal. You break one, and everyone in the house will get poisoned. Mmm …this asparagus is delicious. Is it organic?”
Seeing as we’d rather not be murdered by our light bulbs, and would prefer to have a comeback to comments like the above, here’s the lowdown on this and some other contentious green issues:

ARE COMPACT FLUORESCENT LIGHT BULBS SAFE?

CFLs do contain mercury—as do all fluorescent bulbs, including the long tubular ones that flicker annoyingly above you at the office—but they’re only potentially dangerous if they break. According to the UK’s Health Protection Agency, if a bulb does break, evacuate the room for 15 minutes. Make sure it’s well ventilated so that any airborne mercury particles can dissipate. Then pick up the pieces while wearing rubber gloves. Use sticky tape to pick up small fragments and dust. Wipe the area clean with a damp cloth, then bag everything, including the tape and cloth, in a sealed plastic bag. Sweeping is not a good idea, apparently; this increases the chance of inhaling mercury particles. These are conservative guidelines, obviously, but mercury is a serious toxin—so rather be careful. Why they don’t tell us all this on the packaging boggles the mind, apart from the obvious fact that it’ll scare us out of buying one. The amount of mercury in one bulb is tiny, though—it would fit on the tip of a ballpoint pen—and by most accounts it’s not enough to pose a health threat.
As for a CFL’s green credentials, it turns out that it’s still more eco-friendly than a traditional incandescent bulb. Incandescent globes definitely chew more power, and the extra mercury released directly into the air from coal-fired power stations (burning coal releases mercury and other heavy metals) far outweighs any that will escape from CFLs, even if they’re not recycled properly.

DOES TURNING OFF THE GEYSER SAVE ELECTRICITY?

On the subject of using less electricity, most of us will have heard that our geysers chew serious kilowatts (up to 40 per cent of a household’s energy usage), and that turning them off for part of the day, or putting them on a timer, can save quite a bit on the monthly bill. Turns out that that’s not the case. Turning your geyser off for short periods causes it to work harder to get the water back to the set temperature, as opposed to leaving it on the whole time, on ‘simmer’, if you will. Irritating news, that, for anyone who thought he or she was doing their bit for the environment. A better tactic is to turn the thermostat setting down and avoid using the geyser during peak morning and evening times. Turning it off for long periods, like when you’re away on holiday, is still a good idea, though.

IS BIO-FUEL THE ENERGY OF THE FUTURE?

Yes. If you’re living in Coco-Loco-Pieter-de-Villiers-Land, that is. The problem with bio-fuels is that they’re made from food crops, and so they compete with food for land. Added to this, the amount of naturally-sequestered carbon released by chopping down forests and clearing vegetation to make room for bio-fuel crops would more than cancel the carbon emissions saved by replacing fossil fuels with these veggie fuels. Not to mention the environmental destruction, loss of biodiversity, and potential people displacement that could happen. Infinitely more sensible solutions, such as restricting car use and vastly (yet surprisingly easily) improving public transport, would go much further towards reducing carbon emissions.

WILL GOING VEGETARIAN SAVE THE PLANET?

It sounds logical—eating plants is more energy efficient than feeding them to animals and then eating said beasts later—but it’s a little more involved than that. While most animal products (a charming term that, by the way) have a much higher carbon footprint than food made from plants, certain dairy products, such as hard cheese, have a bigger footprint per kilo than chicken, for example. And as everyone knows, many vegetarians rely a lot on cheese for their protein. So next time a veggie colleague is preparing salad in the office kitchen, chirp, “Ooh, enjoy your chicken salad,” and calmly walk away.