Behind The Label: Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

cfl light bulbs

ColumnAs incandescent light bulbs are being phased out, compact fluorescent light bulbs are stepping in to take their place. But are CFLs really the most environmentally-friendly alternative?

Thomas Edison may have been on to something when he invented and popularized the modern incandescent light bulb in 1878. But 135 years later, the world is in desperate need of an environmentally-friendly upgrade. Enter, the compact fluorescent light bulb, or CFL.

CFLs have been on the market since the 1980s, but they didn’t enter the mainstream until President George W. Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which initiated the gradual phase-out of incandescent light bulbs on the U.S. market. The 100-watt bulb was discontinued in 2011, followed by the 75-watt bulb earlier this year. The 60- and 40-watt bulbs are slated to disappear in January 2014.

The law does not ban the use or purchase of incandescent bulbs, but it does require that new bulbs be 25 percent more energy efficient. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that consumers replace their old bulbs with ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs. But is that really the most environmentally-friendly alternative? This week’s Behind The Label investigates.

The Good

The higher cost of CFLs used to be prohibitive, but prices have fallen dramatically over the past few years. A recent online search found a four-pack of EcoSmart 9-Watt (60W) CFL Light Bulbs for $5.85 at Home Depot.

According to the EPA, an ENERGY STAR qualified CFL light bulb saves about $6 a year and $40 over its lifetime in electricity costs. Plus, a CFL uses about 75 percent less energy and heat than a traditional incandescent, which can save on home cooling costs. The icing on the cake? A CFL lasts at least six times longer than an incandescent bulb, which means less balancing on rickety stepstools to replace burnt-out bulbs.

And those are just the individual implications of switching to ENERGY STAR qualified CFLs. The EPA estimates that “if every American home replaced just one light bulb with a light bulb that’s earned the ENERGY STAR, we would save enough energy to light 3 million homes for a year, save about $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent 9 billion pounds of greenhouse gas emissions per year, equivalent to those from about 800,000 cars.”

In addition, CFLs are free from tungsten, a mineral contained in the filament of most incandescent light bulbs. Tungsten is a known conflict mineral and its mining has funded violent armed rebel groups in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

broken cfl light bulb mercury

The Bad

With its long list of energy- and cost-cutting characteristics, switching to CFL light bulbs should be a no-brainer. But there is a drawback: the presence of mercury, a toxic element that is particularly dangerous for small children and fetuses. Mercury can enter the body through inhalation, ingestion, or skin absorption, and it can have serious effects on the nervous system. Continued exposure can lead to physical and psychological disorders, and even death.

The EPA says that the amount of mercury in a CFL is only about four milligrams – not enough to prevent them from being on the market, but enough for the EPA to recommend a cautionary multi-step clean-up process in the event of a breakage. When CFLs shatter in or near the home, the mercury within them can contaminate the air and soil. And when CFLs are improperly disposed of, there are broader implications.

“The problem with the bulbs is that they’ll break before they get to the landfill,” John Skinner, executive director of the Solid Waste Association of North America, told NPR. “They’ll break in containers, or they’ll break in a dumpster or they’ll break in the trucks. Workers may be exposed to very high levels of mercury when that happens.”

Wendy Reed, manager of the EPA’s ENERGY STAR program, admits that not enough has been done to make it easier for people to recycle CFL light bulbs. “I share your frustration that there isn’t a national infrastructure for the proper recycling of this product,” she told NPR.

Retail stores like Ace Hardware, Home Depot, IKEA, Lowe’s, and TrueValue are starting to launch CFL recycling programs, and some regions have municipal drop-off points. But the process of collecting, protecting, and transporting old CFLs to recycling centers can be burdensome, which means that more often than not, old bulbs end up in the garbage. Until now, such disposal hasn’t led to significant toxic waste issues. But as CFLs continue to proliferate, the U.S. will need a stronger strategy.

So what now?

Educate yourself on proper clean-up procedures.

The EPA recommends a multi-step approach to cleaning up a broken CFL. First, clear the room of people and pets. Turn off your central heating or air conditioning system and air out the room by opening a door or window. Scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard, then use tape to pick up the remaining fragments. Place everything in a sealed container and immediately place in an outdoor trash container. Continue to air out the room and leave off the heating or air conditioning system for several hours.

Research CFL recycling programs.

Use Earth911 to search for CFL collection schedules and drop-off locations near you. Retailers like Ace Hardware, Home Depot, IKEA, Lowe’s, and TrueValue offer in-store recycling programs, and other retailers are expected to follow suit as CFLs become more popular.

Install CFLs in hard-to-reach places.

Using CFLs in ceiling fixtures and other hard-to-reach places can greatly lower the risk of an accidental breakage. Be sure to lay a towel on the ground when installing the bulb, in case it falls.

Consider LEDs.

LED light bulbs tend to be more expensive than CFLs, but they offer more energy and cost savings over the long run. A 6-watt (40W) LED light bulb can cost as low as $10 and last up to 23 years, saving $94 over the bulb’s life. Plus, they don’t contain the added risk of mercury.

Images: Anton FomkinKyle May

Jessica Marati

Jessica Marati currently resides in New York City and covers travel and sustainability for EcoSalon. Catch her weekly column, Behind the Label.