Thursday, September 9, 2010

The law of unintended consequences

I hadn't realized this, but apparently the incandescent light bulb will be illegal in 2014. They will be replaced by CFLs, compact fluorescent lamps, those curly things that look like soft ice cream cones.

We recently had an energy audit, heavily subsidized by your taxes. Two people spent two hours going through our house and, among other things, replacing incandescent bulbs with CFLs. One in the garage burned out in two weeks. Others take a while to warm up and reach their full brightness. But, fine.

Now comes word that the last U.S. plant that manufactures the old incandescents in closing. It's a GE factory in Winchester, Virginia. Despite all the hoopla about "green jobs," these thingies will be made in China, because they need more hand labor. It would cost 10 percent more to make them here.

As the Washington Post reports, this trend to overseas manufacturing continues unabated.
Under the pressures of globalization, the number of manufacturing jobs in the United States has been shrinking for decades, from 19.5 million in 1979 to 11.6 million this year, a decline of 40 percent.

At textile mills in North Carolina, at auto parts plants in Ohio, at other assorted manufacturing plants around the country, the closures have pushed workers out, often leaving them to face an onslaught of personal defeats: lower wages, community college retraining and unemployment checks. 
This is bad for these people, but it isn't necessarily bad for the economy. It is an unintended consequence of regulation. And here's another: these CFLs contain mercury.

Now the EPA, which endorses the use of CFLs, also tries to make this mercury seem a non-threat -- it's in rocks and coal, you know. But to my mind the EPA gives the game away with  this warning should you break one of these puppies:

Before Cleanup: Air Out the Room

  • Have people and pets leave the room, and don't let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.
  • Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
  • Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.

Cleanup Steps for Hard Surfaces

  • Carefully scoop up glass pieces and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
  • Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
  • Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place towels in the glass jar or plastic bag.
  • Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.
Meantime, we all assume an additional cost for using these things. According to Wikipedia:
The retail price includes an amount to pay for recycling, and manufacturers and importers have an obligation to collect and recycle CFLs. Safe disposal requires storing the bulbs unbroken until they can be processed. In the US, The Home Depot is the first retailer to make CFL recycling options widely available. The EPA recommends that, in the absence of local guidelines, fluorescent bulbs be double-bagged in plastic before disposal.
You just can't make one change in the economy. Too many other things you can't imagine will also change.

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