Shining a Light on CFLs

Matthew Freeman

Dec. 31, 2008

The Environmental Working Group is out with a new guide to Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs (CFLs), and they warn that not all CFLs are environmentally equal.


CFLs offer huge energy-consumption and length-of-use advantages over traditional incandescent bulbs, but they introduce one noteworthy environmental problem: each CFL has a tiny amount of mercury inside the glass. It’s not much – about what would fit on the tip of ballpoint pen – but if the bulb breaks, the mercury can be dangerous. If one breaks, you’re supposed to get children, pregnant women and pets out of the room, open the windows, turn off air conditioning or heating, put on rubber gloves and a mask, and carefully put the pieces into a sealed jar. (Read cleanup instructions from EWG here, and from EPA here (pdf)).


Disturbing as that description is, CFLs still pose less of a mercury problem than incandescent bulbs, EWG and EPA say, because the coal-fired power plants that supply about half of the nation’s electricity send even more mercury up the smokestack. Since CFLs use considerably less energy than incandescents, their tiny onboard mercury payload is less hazardous to the environment.


Bulbs aren’t all that likely to break in the home, particularly because you’re not likely to handle them for years at a time. But once in the trash stream, all bets are off. They can get broken in trash cans, on trash trucks or in landfills. That’s why an increasing number of states and communities are requiring that the bulbs be recycled, although not as part of curbside recycling. Some retailers will help with that. IKEA and Home Depot say their stores will take CFLs whenever they’re open, and Wal-Mart has special CFL recycling events at their stores. (An interesting fact emerges here: Home Depot says that 75 percent of American homes are within 10 miles of one of their stores.)


EWG’s new guide points out that the Bush Administration recently moved back the December 2008 effective date for new regulations that require lower mercury content in CFLs. (The Bush Administration relaxing environmental standards on its way out the door? What were the odds?) But EWG lists seven CFLs with the smallest mercury payload, as well as dozens of bulbs now carrying the Energy Star logo that do not meet the new mercury standards, now slated to go into effect on July 1, 2009.

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