What you can’t see, won’t kill ya - a lesson in TBL

TBL, or Triple Bottom Line, is a nifty concept that says we want to be evaluating and measuring projects on the basis not only of economic, but environmental and societal values as well. TBL is expected to be used to evaluate Bellingham’s waterfront redevelopment. Now that’s a big project and it is perhaps somewhat difficult to understand how TBL will be implemented. So for my own learning I decided to see where TBL would lead me on a smaller project closer to home.

Last year I decided to re-lamp from incandescent bulbs to CFL bulbs, aka Compact Fluorescent Lights. After all, many claims and research say CFLs use 25% of the power and last as much 8 times longer. Even the packaging on a 4 bulb set tells me I can put $45 dollars back in my pocket. Who can resist that? I felt good when I had completed the project…a few small steps towards reduced energy consumption. TBL score: Positive on economics, positive on environment, correct?

Within three months, two of the CFLs had failed…just stopped working, no breakage fortunately. Like other fluorescent bulbs, they contain mercury and the packaging warns to follow federal, state and local laws when disposing them. Unlike the familiar long, linear fluorescent tube, these little babies can easily be tossed in the regular trash, undetected, to keep the mercury circulating in our system….quick solution, bad ecological karma. TBL score: Dropping on economics, negative on environment.

Ok, so maybe there were just a couple of bad bulbs…new technology and all that. But the disposal problem is a real concern. So, let’s find out how well our local government does on this problem. Email to the city’s Dept of Public Works…listed on the web site as dealing with environmental issues. I received an almost immediate response back from the city with useful info. The good news, according to the city, there is one approved collection facility on W. Bakerview. The bad news, open from 9am-4pm M-F, and you have to drive there. Called the facility, they suggested that I store the bulbs until I had enough other hazardous waste collected at home to save fuel. TBL score: economics are looking worse, environment is mixed (better on mercury, worse on energy and uncontrolled storage of hazardous waste-my garage), societal is positive (response by the city, and having a collection site).

Are we done yet? Not quite. In doing this little project, I notice that the bulbs were made in China. It is reported that China is the now the major planetary polluter and also has little to no concern for the health and safety of its workers. TBL score: economics are slightly positive, environmental is negative (probably positive here and negative in China), societal has gone way negative due to concerns for the Chinese worker.

What I think I learned:
That TBL is very useful for a better understanding of the consequences of our choices. It is also more difficult to use quantitatively than qualitatively (in this case, it is just hard to find meaningful data). We need a method that will help us map, compare and give weight to these different values. We also need a way for our community values to be reflected in the TBL measures we choose to employ. If personal values are different than the community’s, we can wind up with a lot of CFLs where we don’t want them. Finally, we need to look at the whole system to understand the consequences. Personally, I won’t buy another CFL, and I will continue to use and refine TBL

And maybe, just maybe, we could convince those who run our trash collection system to operate a monthly hazardous waste curbside pickup.

About Ham Hayes

Closed Account • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Ham lived in Bellingham while writing for NW Citizen from 2007 to 2011.

Comments by Readers

NWCitizen Management

Feb 22, 2008

Ham’s mini experiment with low energy lightbulbs and how well the use of them balances on with environment, economic and social measurements is a very illustrative of how Triple Bottom Line works, I disagree with is conclusions.  And here is why.

I started buying CFL bulbs years ago when they cost $14 each and watched them drop to their present couple bucks - or less.  The ones I first bought were made in the US - and now they are made in China - and I do not like that.  But then the question is - were ar the other bulbs made?  And what choices do we have? 

I believe we need to stimulate good change by endorsing it with our participation - not waiting until it is perfected.  If I can find more expensive CFL bulbs that are made in the USA then I will buy them.  But I cannot. 

What I really do not like are the lamps that come out of China.  They are shoddy.  For years I have searched for lamps not made in China - and have not been able to find them.  I thought OTT lights - selling for over $100 would be a solution.  But in unpacking them, there is the China name.  I’ve shopped expensive lamp shops looking for quality USA made lamps - and have not found any.  I needed lamps and have had no choice but to place several Chinese lamps in my home.  Lamps I’m sure were made with exploited - slave? - labor.


Bob Aegerter

Feb 22, 2008

The problem with Ham’s analysis is that he does not do the math.  If he did, he would probably discover that the economics and the environment still come out positive.  Come on Ham, your bias is showing!

I have had 6 CFB’s burning in the garage and at least 6 inside the house for over 1 year. My power bill is down significantly. So far, one premature failure.  Failure rate does very with manufacturer but I have not seen any reliable data on which are best.


Larry Horowitz

Feb 23, 2008

For those interested in more info on TBL, Dr. Stephen Senge of WWU’s College of Business & Economics will speak about TBL and its role in the planning process at the Bellingham Planning Commission (BPC) meeting on Thursday, Feb 28 at 7:00 pm. 

According to Planning Commissioner David Auer, “Dr. Senge will define TBL accounting, discuss how it can be used, and address the need to define and use specific measurable values to be sure that TBL objectives are being met.”

Also at the BPC meeting, Dr. Hart Hodges of WWU’s Center for Economic & Business Research will present “Whatcom by the Numbers,” a review of Bellingham & Whatcom County current economic conditions.

A Q&A;discussion will follow each presentation.

BPC meetings are held at City Council chambers.


Craig Mayberry

Feb 23, 2008

Triple Bottom Line is an important business topic and is applicable to the waterfront redevelopment, but is difficult to use in the context of light bulbs.  Most public corporations now provide a report showing their financial, social, and environmental impact.  No one has ever been able to quantify in dollar terms the social and environmental impact, so usually the exercise is one of developing a few indicators and showing the trend over time.  From a waterfront perspective they should have a series of indicators in each of the three areas and then measure those over time.  Some examples might be:

Financial:  Cost of environmental clean-up, infrastructure costs, LIFT repayment

Social: Housing affordability indicator,
daily vistors to waterfront parks, % of people that live,work,shop in the waterfront area.

Environmental: Green building indicator, carbon emission indicator, Water quality indicator

The exercise of TBL is to find balance between the three indicators, instead of focusing purely on financial return.  It will be interesting to see what the Port comes up with for indicators.


Hue Beattie

Feb 24, 2008

L.E.D.s (Light Emitting Diodes) are the way to go. They last longer, use less energy and do not contain mercury.
But other than flashlights ,there is not much available locally.