Tuesday, April 12, 2011

CFLs -- what to do with them when they burn out?

Photo courtesy of Petr Kratochvil
Have you made the switch from incadescent lightbulbs to the energy saving, albeit, pain in the neck, CFLs? Uh oh, did Green Grandma just say something negative about something as eco-friendly as a Energy Star product. Yeah, I guess I did.

It's just that these supposed-answers-to-our-problem solutions sometimes cause even more problems. You know what I mean? In the case of the energy-saving CFLs (compact fluorescent lamps), it's the mercury in them and the so-called "dirty electricity" they produce, as per Dr. Magda Havas, the foremost "authority" on the subject.

The question is: who do you trust? A researcher who has relatively few backers, or the EPA who, we all know, always puts the safety of the American people first (cough, cough).

My answer? I don't know. I can give you the facts about CFLs and you can research the suppositions.
  • Save energy, using up to 75% less energy than a standard incadescent bulb.
  • Save electricity costs -- about $40 over the normal lifetime of the bulb.
  • Product 75% less heat than a standard lightbulb.
  • Contain mercury. However, each bulb has about 4 milligrams of mercury encased in the tubing. Compare this to the 500 milligrams of mercury in the old glass thermometers we used to use.
So, if there's so little mercury, what's the big hype? Well, it still is considered hazardous if the bulb is broken, which is why it is necessary to recycle the bulbs responsibly, so they do not end up broken in the landfill. There are outlets across the country (internationally, as well) where you can take your still-intact, burned out CFLs. Earth911.com is always an excellent resource for discovering where to recycle whatever it is you are looking to recycle, including CFLs. You can also check with your local Lowe's, Home Depot, Ace/True Value Hardware and/or IKEA stores, all of which accept unbroken CFLs for recycling. Also, many municipalities offer household hazardous waste drop-offs or curbside pickups.

Why recycle CFLs? Well, some of the parts are reusable. Plus, by recycling, you prevent the release of mercury into the environment.

Why use CFLs? One statistic states that if every home in the United States switched just one incadescent lightbulb with an Energy Star CFL, the energy savings would equal enough to light 3 million homes for 1 full year! Annual energy cost savings -- $600 million! A reduction of greenhouse gas emissions of 9 billion pounds per year (which is equivalent to approximately 800,000 cars)! So, as you can see, there is significant reason to make the switch. But what happens if you break one?

Here's the really sticky part...the part I really do not like! Cleaning up a broken CFL is a pain in the neck. The EPA has a detailed "How to Clean up a CFL" article on their website (thanks for pointing this out, Becky!). It gave me a headache just to read it! I'm going to be extra careful to never have to need this article, but I'm guessing everyone should print it out and hang it inside the cupboard door where you keep your lightbulbs...just in case.

Thanks to more and more research, there are alternatives available, with more to come. Recently, I won one of these alternatives: the GE Energy Smart LED 40 watt bulb (Energy Star certified). This is an amazing little device. Here are some facts about this LED technology:
  • It has the same light output as a 40W incandescent bulb, but lasts up to 25x longer.
  • It uses less energy than a CFL, consuming 9 watts, which equals a 77% savings in energy used.
  • It has a durable design with no filament.
  • It contains no mercury (woo hoo!)
  • It is cooler than a CFL, which means it is significantly cooler than a standard lightbulb.
  • It's expensive.
Ouch...that last point isn't what you wanted to hear, is it. While it was estimated to cost between $40 and $50 when it hit the shelves this year, I found one at Lowe's for $34.98. But these bulbs last a really long time. According to John Strainic, Global Product General Manager GE Lighting, you can light your kid's desk lamp from birth through high school with just one of these bulbs. Plus, you save on your electric bill (estimated energy cost is just slightly over $1/year), so in the end, it is a bargain.

At this point, we still have a choice as to how to light our homes, although if the government has anything to say about it, that choice will be taken away eventually and we will be forced to buy non-standard incadescent bulbs. But isn't it good to know that GE and other companies are already developing alternatives to the CFLs for those of us who are skeptical about the "dirty electricity" or fear one of our children or grandchildren breaking one of them?

Going green. Like I always say, you have to use some common sense.

Keeping it green and healthy,



  1. More about CFL and LED problems, also referring to Magda Havas

    CFL Safety
    Home Safety -- Radiation -- Health

    The CFL Mercury Issue
    Breakage -- Recycling -- Dumping -- Mining -- Manufacturing --
    Transport -- Power Plants

    The Lead and Arsenic Issue
    Lead, arsenic and other toxic content, home breakage and disposal concerns

    The Overall Small Energy Savings from light bulb regulations:
    USA Dept of Energy data, less than 1% of society energy usage saved

  2. Thank you for further enlightenment on this issue.


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