Devising State Policy on Compact Fluorescent Lamps

Abstract

Consumers have increased their use of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) due to their greater energy efficiency relative to traditional incandescent bulbs. Despite this benefit, CFLs pose potential environmental, health, and safety (EHS) risks due to the presence of mercury within the lamp itself. Without proper handling and disposal, the mercury can be released, with possible health risks to humans. While each CFL has a small amount of mercury, the cumulative environmental and health effects might be significant.

This case puts students in the position of deciding what to do about CFLs. They have been appointed by their state’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources to serve on an advisory board to recommend a statewide policy on the disposal of compact fluorescent lamps after their useful life. Their task is to evaluate the pros and cons of CFLs, the EHS tradeoffs, and disposal methods, and decide what actions – if any – the state should take to address CFL disposal.

The value of this case is that it confronts policymakers with a problem of some scientific and technological complexity, poses a range of trade-offs, offers asymmetrical incentive structures, and no obvious correct answer. There is no clear “bad actor.” As such, the case is representative of the types of challenges policymakers, and not just technical experts, face all the time. What do we do about products, or practices, that have obvious benefits and yet also pose some risks? What is “acceptable risk” in a democratic society? And who decides?

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