BRUSSELS — Restrictions on the sale of incandescent bulbs has started taking effect across most of Europe in the Continent’s latest effort to get people to save energy and combat global warming. But even advocates concede the change is proving problematic.
Under the rules, stores are no longer allowed to buy or import most incandescent frosted glass bulbs. Retailers can continue to sell the bulbs until their existing stock runs out.
While some Europeans are enthusiastic, others are panicking and have been stockpiling the old-style bulbs for aesthetic or practical reasons. Still others are resigned to the switch, if grudgingly.
“Why are we switching? Because we have to,” said Ralph Wennig, a 40-year-old photographer shopping recently at BHV, a Paris department store.
The new compact fluorescent lamps are billed as more economical because they use up to 80 percent less energy and do not burn out as quickly.
“But the downside is that the light isn’t as nice,” Wennig said, “and they are more expensive individually.”
One bulb can cost 10 euros, or $14 — or a lot more, depending on type — whereas traditional incandescent bulbs cost about 70 cents each. But European Union officials argued that the energy savings would cut average household electricity bills by up to 50 euros a year, saving about 5 billion euros a year across Europe. That would help buoy the economy if consumers spent their savings, they said.
At a briefing in Brussels before the change, however, the officials also were parrying charges that they were depriving children of traditional fairground lights, as well as also dealing with more serious questions about health hazards from the mercury in the new lamps.
Such arguments have already started to reverberate in the United States, where incandescent bulbs are scheduled to be phased out starting in 2012.
Until then, the European Union is providing the biggest staging ground for the conversion and a debate over trade-offs created by environmental legislation. The issues include the loss of long-standing manufacturing industries, consumer choice and possible exacerbation of other environmental hazards.
Products as diverse as televisions, washing machines and tiny motors are being made more energy-efficient. The incandescent bulb ban is one of a series of measures to support the Europe’s goal of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 20 percent by 2020.
But the light-bulb ban has proved singular in the way it has stirred fierce debate. The ubiquity of lighting and the way it can alter the aesthetics of an interior, even the experience of reading a book, makes it somehow more personal.
European countries are not the first to ban incandescent light bulbs. Australia has already introduced a ban, and Cuba has entirely shifted to compact fluorescent bulbs, said Andras Toth. Consumer advocates in Europe have cautiously welcomed the measures, but have also pointed to drawbacks for consumers — especially those who have a special sensitivity to certain kinds of light or need old-style bulbs for health reasons.
“The blanket ban could spell misery for thousands of epilepsy and anxiety sufferers who are adversely affected by energy-saving bulbs,” said Martin Callanan, a European Parliament member.
European officials sought to reassure consumers that they still would have plenty of choice, and that the changes would be gradual. The clear 60-watt bulb, one of the most commonly used, will remain available until at least September 2011, and clear 40-watt bulbs until 2012.
National governments will be responsible for enforcing the rules.
The European Commission acknowledged, however, that compact fluorescent lamps had to be handled with extra caution. If one breaks, people are advised to air out rooms and avoid using vacuum cleaners when cleaning up the mess to prevent exposure to mercury and other electronic parts in the bulbs, officials said. Instead, householders should remove the debris with a wet cloth while avoiding contact with skin. Used bulbs should be put in special collection receptacles.
Stephen Russell, the secretary general of ANEC, a group representing consumer interests in the development of product standards, said the commission had set the limit for mercury too high.
European officials said that they would find ways to push the industry to reduce the amount of mercury to levels around 2 milligrams for each bulb from the current level of 5 milligrams per bulb.