Shedding Light on the Bulb Controversy

January 13, 2020 Updated: January 15, 2020

Not since the days of Thomas Edison has there been so much fuss over light bulbs. But the issue of light bulbs currently relates to two hot topics in the media—President Donald Trump and saving the planet—so it’s back in the spotlight.

Trump has often joked about how energy-efficient light bulbs make him look “orange,” usually evoking guffaws from supporters and groans from his detractors.

But the Trump administration’s decision to block impending new restrictions on light bulbs has thrown some of his opponents into a tizzy.

“We’re bringing major companies back to our country. They want to be here. We’re the hot economy. We’re the place they want to be. And we are reversing the last administration’s ridiculous attack on, as an example, incandescent light bulbs,” Trump said at a White House briefing in October 2019.

Stricter regulations imposed by then-President Barack Obama’s administration in 2017 had been set to take effect on Jan. 1, 2020—and would have phased out all incandescent and halogen bulbs, replacing them with LED bulbs—before the Trump administration nixed the regulations.

Scrapping the Obama-era rules gives consumers more choices at a cheaper price, Trump said.

“They can buy a much less expensive bulb that looks better, or they can spend a lot more money on what they were doing, and that’s fine, too. They might like it. It might last longer, and that’s OK. But it is still a hazardous situation when you have to dispose of these things, whereas in the old system, you don’t have. So, we’re bringing the incandescent bulb back for those that want it. We’re going to have both alternatives. We like to have alternatives.”

California Attorney General Xavier Becerra denounced the Trump administration for deciding to scrap the Obama-era standards. Along with 15 other states, California joined a lawsuit with the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals challenging the U.S. Department of Energy’s efficiency standards for light bulbs.

These critics say the Obama-era rules would have saved consumers about $12 billion in annual electricity costs, about $100 per household, and reduced annual greenhouse gas emissions by 34 million metric tons nationwide.

“The Trump Administration needs to move on from old-fashioned technologies and yesterday’s way of doing business,” Becerra said in a Nov. 4 media release.

“It’s time to face the reality that American consumers deserve and demand more efficient and sustainable options. Today we filed this lawsuit to block the Department of Energy from pushing a foolish agenda that prioritizes outdated, polluting technology over the needs of the people and our environment. We can’t afford to turn our back on progress.”

Then on Dec. 31, 2019, a 9th Circuit federal judge ruled that California can enforce its own minimum standards for light bulbs, despite objections from industry groups.

Not a ‘Rollback’

Though his political opponents call Trump’s move a “rollback,” the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) disagrees.

“This action is not a rollback. In December 2019, DOE published a final determination to maintain the existing energy conservation standards for general service incandescent lamps, as DOE determined that more stringent standards were not economically justified,” a department official said in a statement emailed to The Epoch Times on Jan. 10. “DOE made this determination following a robust evaluation of seven statutory factors, including the savings in operating cost versus the increase in upfront cost.”

Epoch Times Photo
Incandescent light bulbs at the City Lights lighting store in San Francisco, Calif., on April 11, 2008. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The more stringent standards for incandescent light bulbs under the Obama-era regulations would have made these bulbs so expensive that consumers would not be able to recoup their upfront costs. They would have increased the price of light bulbs by more than 300 percent, or from less than $2 per bulb to over $8 per bulb, according to the DOE.

“In other words, more stringent standards would make these light bulbs so expensive that no one would buy them—and, very likely, no one would manufacture them either,” the DOE stated. “By maintaining existing standards, DOE followed the law and preserved consumer choice.”

Trump Taunts

Trump continues to rib his opponents about light bulbs on the campaign trail, taking jabs at the “bad lighting” of the “fake news” TV cameras.

“Aside from the fact you look better—of course, who cares about looks? But you do look better with incandescent. They weren’t allowed. And you have the privilege of buying now a much more expensive bulb under the past rules—much more expensive bulb that doesn’t have a good-looking light,” he said during the briefing in October 2019.

“But maybe, very importantly, when the bulb is out and no good, it’s literally considered a hazardous waste site, because it’s all the gasses. And if it breaks, you’re supposed to bring it to a certain location. And I say, ‘Who does that?’ Nobody. Nobody does. It’s very dangerous.”

Recycling Light Bulbs

Trump is referring more to fluorescent bulbs, not LEDs, when he talks about hazardous waste.

Unlike compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), light emitting diode (LED) bulbs are not considered hazardous waste, according to the DOE.

Epoch Times Photo
Compact fluorescent light (CFL) bulbs at the City Lights Light Bulb Store in San Francisco, Calif., on Jan. 31, 2007. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Epoch Times Photo
Philips President and CEO Gerard Kleisterlee (L), and CFO Pierre-Jean Sivignon display two low-energy light bulbs during a press conference in Amsterdam on Jan. 25, 2010. (Marcel Antonisse/AFP via Getty Images)

“LEDs do not need to be recycled in the same manner as CFLs since LED bulbs do not contain mercury. Unlike CFLs, which are hazardous waste and require special handling, consumers can dispose of LED bulbs as they would traditional incandescent bulbs,” the DOE official stated.

Bulb Disposal

Brian Morales, owner of Pro-Cal Lighting based in Vista, California, said that his company recycles all LEDs and CFL bulbs.

Because his company does commercial electrical and lighting installations in the San Diego County area, he removes plenty of old fluorescent bulbs. Like any other installer, he has to dispose of them properly or face consequences from the Environmental Protection Agency.

Although LED bulbs are not considered hazardous waste by the federal DOE, they should still be taken to a recycler, Morales said.

“They are electronics, so they are supposed to be disposed of like any other electronics are supposed to be disposed because they have precious metals in them”—not the least of which is gold, he said.

“Really, the only thing you can toss anymore are those incandescent lamps,” Morales said. But because most homeowners don’t know which light bulbs need to be recycled and which ones don’t, most don’t recycle, he said.

“It’s not really well known. They don’t do it.”

What Consumers Say

In light of the controversy, The Epoch Times set out to ask Southern California consumers if they were aware of Trump’s actions to put the older style bulbs back on store shelves.

Al Hackworth, 80, of Temecula, said he likes having the choice of buying incandescent light bulbs.

“I like the 100-watt light bulbs, incandescent. I know that they’re not energy efficient, but I like ’em. And for my garage door opener and stuff like that, they’ve got heavy duty bulbs. You can’t get those anymore, and that’s irritating because when you’ve been around for 80 years, you like that stuff,” Hackworth said.

Though he has used more energy-efficient bulbs, he said he hasn’t thought much about recycling them. “I haven’t had any LEDs go out yet, so I haven’t had to dispose of any of them,” he said.

Doyle Stowe, 67, of Murrieta, said he wasn’t aware of the light bulbs controversy. When asked if he recycles LED and fluorescent bulbs, he said “I didn’t know you could” and that he will usually just “throw them in the trash.”

James Acosta, 40, of Rialto, said he wasn’t aware of the rollbacks but that he does recycle all of his light bulbs.

Kristy Crosby, 52, of Murrieta, wasn’t aware of Trump’s stance on light bulbs, but said she does recycle bulbs when she can. “Some of them. Both LED and fluorescent,” said Crosby, adding, “I’m a Trump supporter.”

Teresa, 63, of Murrieta, who declined to give her last name, said she wasn’t aware of Trump’s position on light bulbs.

“I can’t stand that guy. I don’t even care what he thinks, but I use the ones that save energy. I wasn’t aware of him talking about that. I was aware of him talking about flushing toilets,” she said with a laugh.

Because she lives in a seniors’ apartment complex, she doesn’t have to change light bulbs often, but said, “The fluorescent light bulbs are taken by the maintenance guys when they change them, so I don’t know what they do with them.”

Paul Parker, 65, of Murrieta, said he’s aware of the Trump administration’s stance on light bulbs.

“I don’t know if that’s true in California, but I’m aware of the national thing,” Parker said.

As far as recycling LED and other energy-efficient bulbs, Parker said he hasn’t really thought about it much.

“They might go in the recycle bin, but they could end up in the trash, too, because I probably wouldn’t think about it. We’ve moved pretty much to LEDs. But with the fluorescents, I was aware that they have some real toxic components, so I’m probably a little more careful with those,” Parker said.

Scott Sage said he doesn’t recycle any light bulbs but is aware of the issue. “I think I heard about it on the news,” he said.

Lighting the Future

While LEDs cost more money up front than incandescent light bulbs, they’re more energy efficient, and the cost of these bulbs has dropped in recent years, resulting in increased consumer use.

“The average cost of LEDs has dropped by nearly 90 percent since 2008. Over that same period, total installations of home LEDs increased from 100,000 to nearly 202 million,” the DOE stated via email.

The DOE expects this progress to continue in the absence of more stringent standards for incandescent light bulbs. “This projection proves innovation—as opposed to overburdensome regulation—has and will continue to lead to more efficient energy consumption.”

A recently released DOE report finds that due to continued technological innovation, LED bulbs are anticipated to hold the vast majority of lighting installations by 2035, comprising 84 percent of all applications, up from 20 percent today and one percent in 2010.

LED lighting provided 1.1 quads of energy savings in 2017, and if installations continue at the current pace, total annual energy savings of 4.8 quads is possible by 2035.