Object of the Year 2008







After 127 years in the spotlight, incandescent light bulbs may soon fade into history, as a host of initiatives seek to turn lighting eco-friendly.

In February 2007, Australia announced that stricter energy standards would ban incandescent bulbs by 2010, forcing consumers to buy alternatives, like compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). Australia’s Environment Minister said, ‘if the whole world switched to these bulbs today, we would reduce our consumption of electricity by an amount equal to five times Australia’s annual consumption of electricity’. For a country that refused to sign the Kyoto Protocol, Australia’s nationwide ban was dramatic and bold, but it was not made in isolation.


In November 2006, Wal-Mart announced a campaign to sell 100m cfls by 2008. In January 2007, a Bill was proposed to ban the sale of incandescents in California by 2012. In February 2007, similar legislation was proposed in a number of other US states. In March 2007, Philips announced it would phase out incandescents by 2016. In the same month, the EU discussed a ban on such bulbs by 2010. In April 2007, Canada imposed a federal ban on incandescents from 2012.


Although dozens of people played a part in the invention of the light bulb (including Joseph Swan and Humphrey Davy), history’s laurels rest on the head of Thomas Edison, not least because of his US Patent #223898, filed 27/1/1880. In fundamental design, the modern incandescent – with its finely coiled filament set within an inert-gas-filled glass bulb – differs little from those pioneered in the c19th. And, despite a range of modifications, incandescents still emit only 5% of the energy they consume as light; the rest is wasted as heat.


CFLs are filled with a gas that emits UV light when excited by electricity. In turn, this UV light causes the bulb’s interior coating to emit light visible to the human eye. Compared to incandescents, CFLs are 4× more efficient, last up to 10× longer, consume 50–80% less energy, and produce 75% less heat. And, although CFLs are currently more expensive to buy, the US Dept of Energy claims that >$30 in electricity can be saved over the lifetime of each bulb.


While the cost and energy-saving arguments for CFLs are powerful, public acceptance has been hindered by a sense that the quality of light CFLs emit is insufficiently ‘soothing’ or ‘natural’ – the so-called ‘wife test’.


Furthermore, because CFLs contain mercury, the safe disposal of spent or broken bulbs can be more complex and expensive. As the obligation to use CFLs becomes more widespread, it is clear that their price, quality, and ease of safe disposal will all have to improve. Indeed, they are likely to face competition from other forms of eco-lighting, such as light emitting diodes (LEDs).


The demise of incandescents is part of a series of low-level ‘eco-hardships’ which are (more or less) consumer-approved or even consumer-driven. Other ecohardships include removing ‘standby’ modes from appliances; charging for plastic bags (or banning them altogether, as in San Francisco); charging for the collection of (unrecyclable) waste; pricing drivers off congested roads; encouraging people to turn down domestic thermostats; &c.


It remains to be seen, however, whether these individual acts can have an aggregate effect sufficient to counter environmental damage at an industrial and governmental level.