Bulbs, lamps, CFL’s

BULBS AND COMPACT FLUORESCENT LAMPS Have you been hearing a lot about replacing filament bulbs with fluorescent bulbs? Where is it coming from? The government, the mainstream environmental organizations, the bulb manufacturers, the electrical utilities? That’s usually an indicator that you are not being given the whole story.

Here’s a picture of a typical fluorescent bulb that you are being asked to use:

Do you notice anything special about this bulb? How about the fact that it consists of two parts with two different functions? On top is the actual light source. But on the bottom is an electrical device that is responsible for creating the starting voltage that forces the bulb to flash up and begin shining. It is called the ballast. So why are they joined together this way? Why do we not have a more modular construction? Would that be possible?

Actually it is. When the government orders a few thousand CFL’s they don’t accept this kind of enforced wastefulness that is currently being forced onto consumers. They buy bulbs with SEPARATE ballasts and bulbs. They estimate that one ballast will last through about five bulbs. Yet the CFL promoters for consumers are only too happy to force you to discard perfectly fine ballasts along with your bulbs.

Here is a picture of a filament bulb. Do you know how this works? Inside the glass envelope is a finely wound tungsten filament that shines white hot until it finally burns out. Then what happens to the tungsten and should we care?

It so happens that tungsten is a valuable metal with very special properties. It is uniquely suited for filaments and many other functions. It is widely used to make tungsten carbide, one of the hardest materials known, used for teeth in cutting tools. In fact, tungsten is so important that it is designated a United States strategic metal and the US maintains a strategic stockpile of tungsten in case our sources are cut off. Yet for a hundred years, we have been making filaments out of it and then throwing all that tungsten into dumps. Does this make any sense?

It would be so easy, in a Zero Waste society, to redesign bulbs so that they can be opened up and the tungsten collected, then a fresh filament attached and the bulb evacuated and closed up again. Soon I expect to be able to picture a model of what that would look like. It would not use the same weak, fragile glass used now because it would be used hundreds of times, so it could use robust or expensive forms and materials.

Perhaps opening up bulbs and replacing filaments could be worked out so that anyone can do it. But it requires working with vacuums and gases so maybe that’s not feasible. No worry, let’s mix a leasing concept with this kind of innovation. What if a bulb manufacturer decided to sell lumens instead of bulbs? What if the lightbulb market were to require that you take your burnt out bulb, of any kind, and return it to someone – it could be a manufacturer or a store or your local Zero Waste central processor – who does have the equipment to open the bulb, collect the tungsten or gallium (in LED’s) or whatever needs to be replaced, put in a new whatever is needed, then close up the bulb again and put it out for reuse. You would probably want to trade it in, on the spot, for newly refurbished bulbs to take home again. The parts removed could be collected and for the first time in a hundred years, valuable tungsten would not be heading into dumps but would be reused endlessly. As in all leasing ventures, you would not need to own a bulb, but would “own” only the light it produced.

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