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Disrupting the disrupters — Tesla faces the challenge of the mini-fluorescent

Date July 10, 2017 Author Lucy Robinson Categories News | RCO in the News

One of the bulbs in a pair of matching lights died last week and we were trying find a replacement.

It was one of those coiled mini-fluorescents, and all the spares in the assorted-light-bulb box were too long and protruded from the fixture.

But a trip to the local grocery store offered a surprise. Despite a wall of shelves our bulb was not there. In fact, as far as we could see there were no compact fluorescents available at all.

Bright idea

The occurrence offered a reminder about disruptive technology that electric car maker Telsa must heed — that any disruptive bright idea is itself subject to disruption.

Having only recently sent the the traditional energy-sucking incandescent bulb to the museum beside the coal oil lamp and buggy whip, the coiled fluorescent is on the way to the museum itself.


The compact fluorescent bulb is a bright idea that will soon join coal oil lamps on the museum shelf.

The Tesla case is not a perfect parallel, but the rise and likely fall of the mercury-laden coiled fluorescent bulb is one more reminder that being the disrupter of an entire century-old technology is no guarantee of an endless meal ticket.

"Most people when they think of fluorescents, they think of CFLs, compact fluorescents, which are the curly light bulb and generally those ones are used in your home," says Jo-Anne St. Godard, who is leading a campaign to get fluorescent bulbs recycled safely.

For St. Godard, executive director of the Recycling Council of Ontario, the main problem is mercury, an essential component in all fluorescent lights, including those long tubes commonly used in offices and public buildings.

Tons of toxic mercury

Commercial users are learning how to dispose of the tubes properly but homeowners are still tossing compact fluorescents into the trash, leading to tons of toxic mercury being released into the environment. The campaign to solve the problem has been backed by Nova Scotia MP Darren Fisher. 

In the long term, the problem will be solved by the international Minamata Convention, though St. Godard says even after the CFL bulbs are banned the mercury problem will continue for decades as homeowners dispose of bulbs when they burn out.

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