This article is one of a series based on my trip to Cuba. I traveled on a People to People tour to Cuba called: Cuba Today, People and Society with Road Scholar. www.roadscholar.org
On my recent trip to Cuba I noticed that every single lamp had compact fluorescent light bulbs. (CFL) Everywhere I went I saw them: every restaurant, school, bathroom, hotel room, church, museum, synagogue, opera house, bar and private home. Every. Single. One. Facing an energy shortage in the late 1990’s the Cuban government decided to replace all incandescent light bulbs in Cuba with CFL bulbs. The Cuban government financed the plan to install millions of compact fluorescent light bulbs in 2.7 million households and institutions. This was done to deal with the serious electricity capacity and fuel constraints facing the island nation. It was decided that changing the light bulbs was cheaper than producing more energy. By 2000 mostly every lamp in Cuba had compact fluorescent light bulbs installed. Refrigeration, air conditioning (or water heating) and lighting are the three principal uses of electricity in Latin America. Lighting is usually a major contributor to the evening peak electrical load. Replacing incandescent bulbs in Cuban lamps proved to be a less expensive alternative than supplying more energy to meet electrical demand. CFLs are energy efficient light bulbs that are an alternative to incandescent bulbs. The CFL costs a bit more, but they can pay for themselves in power bill saving. (In the case of Cuba, the government subsidized the replacement of 11 million bulbs.) Incandescent bulbs emit light when an electrical current is passed over a filament that glows. This kind of bulb casts a gentle glow, but loses a lot of its energy to heat. Fluorescent bulbs emit light when an electrical current energizes the argon and mercury vapor inside the tube. The phosphor coating inside the bulb is then excited and the bulb glows. Much less heat is emitted this way and a lot less energy is consumed. One-fifth to one-third less electrical power is used in a CFL bulb and they last eight to 15 times longer. The savings can be significant over time. One complication of the use of CFLs is their disposal. Since they contain mercury, proper disposal is an issue. If the bulb is kept in tact then there is no risk of mercury escaping, but if it is broken, then the mercury inside the bulb could pose a problem. In this country, several states have guidelines as to disposal of the CFLs. The EPA has established methods for disposal including recycling. In Philadelphia, Cohen Hardware at 615 Passyunk Ave, 215 922 3493, will accept old CFL light bulbs for recycling. (http://cohenandcohardware.com/index.html). Your local Whole Foods store will also recycle CFL bulbs. Let’s hope the huge effort in Cuba to replace incandescent with fluorescent bulbs included guidelines for disposal. Recycling is everywhere in Cuba, specifically out of necessity. Very little goes to waste because the Cubans have very little to begin with. But I couldn’t find any mention of CFL bulb recycling in Cuba to ease my concern that 11 million mercury-containing bulbs might someday be found in a landfill.