Sometimes Green Takes Green

When my mom asked me what gift I'd like for my birthday this year, I think I surprised her a little bit when I answered "light bulbs." But not just any light bulbs. I wanted to fill in the res

Apr 16, 2008 at 2:06 pm

When my mom asked me what gift I'd like for my birthday this year, I think I surprised her a little bit when I answered "light bulbs." But not just any light bulbs.

I wanted to fill in the rest of the light sockets in my apartment with compact fluorescent bulbs, or CFBs. I already had three ceiling lights and two lamps that had fluorescent bulbs I'd bought a few years ago.

The light sockets in my home that didn't yet have CFBs had a minor technological obstacle to overcome. They were either on a dimmable switch, had a candelabra-sized bottom or were in three-way lamps, a feature I sort of relish and wasn't too keen on giving up even if it meant burning a few less kilowatts a month. Stubborn German in me, I suppose.

Luckily, engineers who make those Earth-saving bulbs had devised a solution and created bulbs with just the features I needed. Man, I was excited. I'd get to keep my comfy urban lifestyle and save the environment plus maybe a few bucks on my electric bill all at the same time.

Mom went along with the idea, and to spare her the anguish of trying to shop online (anything computer-related scares her backward into the 1960s) I offered to order the bulbs myself. I picked out five dimmable regular-sized bulbs for my overhead hanging lights, four candelabra dimmable lights (with pointy decorative tip) for the chandelier over the dining room table and two (what turned out to be) enormous three-way bulbs for my lamps, which came with little plastic pieces that extend the lamp harp to make them fit under conventional-sized lamp shades.

I then went to a department store and bought a few other bulbs to finish out my living quarters. The price tag for all this good karma? Right around $200.

Traditional incandescent, Thomas Edison-style filament-burning, electricity-hogging, changed-the-world light bulbs would have probably cost me $15. Probably less.

To add insult to injury, a few days after my boxes of light bulbs arrived from Texas I was watching a local consumer reporter — who bullies me with his wagging, condescending finger into not wasting my money — give his nightly monetary love fest. That's when I found out that those new flourescent bulbs could kill me.

See, they have mercury in them. And so did the thermometer my doctor stuck up my butt as a baby, right?

These flourescent bulbs can fall, break open and release a noxious gas, probably odorless (the worst ones usually are), that will kill my cat first and then me. I wonder if anyone thought about what would have happened had that baby thermometer cracked open inside me.

Now I'm worried all over again. What do I do with my light bulbs? Should I sue my pediatrician? Why would I happily pay a lot — actually spend my parents' money — for lighting my apartment when I could have gotten by on $15?

The answer is that these CFBs apparently will pay for themselves in energy savings over their life. Most of them last, on average, for five years or longer. So that makes sense if you have the money to put up front. Unfortunately, many people don't.

Friends I've spoken to about this issue say they'd like to "go green," as they put it, but find the switchover both costly and confusing.

It comes down to choice and/or practicality, says Dan Korman, owner of Park + Vine, the green general store that opened about a year ago in Over-the-Rhine. New light bulbs are one thing, but the cat litter I now buy made from biodegradable and renewable wheat is about 3 1/2 times more expensive than the old generic clay stuff (which is dug up via strip mining and doesn't break down in a landfill). And I'm getting by on a journalist's meager income.

"A lot of it is up-front costs," Korman says. "I think it would be interesting to ask why (the non-green products) are so cheap."

Korman points to reusable items like washable menstrual pads and washable cloth baby diapers as ways to not only be green but save some green, too. He also has laundry detergent in a gallon-size plastic bottle that claims it will wash 128 loads of laundry for $22.

"It's about using less, not buying more," he says.

Makes sense, but I'm still hoping the green thing will keep a little green in my bank account. Guess I have some shopping to do.

Contact Joe Wessels: [email protected]