Mercury and Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs)
The Real Question
Your real question is: Which is worse, to use an incandescent bulb, which indirectly spreads mercury by using electricity, or to use a fluorescent bulb, which directly spreads mercury when we throw it away?
The short answer: continuing use of the wasteful incandescent bulbs is much worse. The long answer factors in using low mercury bulbs, safe disposal of the bulbs, and other technologies.
Several manufacturers now offer low mercury content bulbs. Philips' ALTO bulbs offer mercury content only 13 to 25 percent of typical fluorescent bulbs. This reduction was achieved with no sacrifice in longevity or performance.
Other manufacturers of low mercury fluorescent bulbs:
Sustainability issues aside, some common complaints continue to arise regarding CFL bulbs.
Color: Many people feel the light cast by a CFL bulb is ugly. Casting a yellow and blue tint, fluorescent bulbs are responsible for that icky appearance of your face in truck stop bathroom mirrors. Most CFL bulbs are color corrected to now compensate for this and special color bulbs are available. Mixing and matching bulbs from different manufacturers can also create color issues. This presents a challenge if you are slowly upgrading the bulbs one-at-a-time as they burn out.
Dimming: Many people complain CFL bulbs cannot be dimmed, preventing millions of people from setting a romantic mood. Greenlite now sells a color-corrected and dimmable CFL bulb.
Cost: Despite the obvious energy savings and long life of the CFL bulb, many people still feel they are too expensive. In reality, you are losing money for every incandescent bulb you do not replace with a CFL.
Theft: Lastly, building owners, hotel operators and office managers complain about people stealing the CFL bulbs right out of the fixtures. There is no easy way around this, and it is a real issue. Hey, these bulbs are popular!
While offering tremendous environmental advantages through energy savings, the disposal of used fluorescent lighting raises some serious environmental concerns.
Several states now regulate the disposal of mercury-containing lamps. The store where you purchased the bulbs should be able to help you recycle burnt out bulbs.
If not, the bulbs can be disposed of through local household hazardous waste collection programs.
Household users are typically exempt from these special disposal requirements. Regardless of the rules, never throw a CFL bulb away into the trash. Recycling opportunities are available in many towns and cities, either at local recycling centers or transfer stations. Contact your local waste disposal officials for details.
The following Ace Hardware locations are currently collecting CFLs and linear tubes.
- Great Falls
- Seeley Lake
Home Depot now offers free CFL recycling for consumers. Take expired, unbroken bulbs to the Returns desk for free recycling.
Palmer Electric Technology Energy Services: P.E.T.E.S. Palmer Electric was the first business located in Montana to offer recycling of fluorescent lamps. P.E.T.E.S. accepts spent lamps from businesses and residents for a small fee, and sees that they are recycled professionally.
Valley Electrical Contracting, Inc.
2820-A Latimor Street
Missoula MT, 59808
LampRecycle.org is a resource for information on recycling spent CFL bulbs.
LampRecycling.com: Mail-in recycling with EasyPak prepaid recycling containers (business & consumer recycling). Waste recycled: Fluorescent lamps, CFLs, batteries, ballasts, and electronic waste. Phone: 800-909-9709; Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Think Green From Home: Waste Management's mail-in recycling program for homeowners. Prepaid shipping containers for the safe collection and shipping of fluorescent tubes, batteries, and other mercury containing objects for recycling.
Everlights: Mail-in recycling with Evermail recycling containers. Waste recycled: Fluorescent lamps, CFLs, batteries, ballasts, and electronic waste. Phone 773-734-9873 or toll-free 877-934-9873. http://www.everlights.com/
Business Equipment and Recycling Options:
Air Cycle Corporation - sells reclamation equipment
Lamp Recyclers of Montana
This business is mobile, bringing lamp crushing services to your business.
Lamp Recyclers Universal Waste
List of companies that handle business-generated Universal Waste. Although there are out-of-state addresses, there are companies that do "milk runs" through Montana to pick up lamps for recycling from diverse businesses.
Other Sources of Mercury in Buildings
Fluorescent lamps are not the only mercury-containing products we use. A number of building systems contain it. Switches and thermostats in heating and cooling systems; measurement devices, valves, and flow switches in systems that move, store, meter, or regulate liquids; and fire suppression and security systems-often incorporate mercury.
For many of these, mercury-free alternatives are available, generally with no additional cost.
Alternatives to Fluorescent Bulbs
Mercury-free fluorescent lamps are available using xenon; however, their efficiency is about 30 percent of that of a mercury-based fluorescent lamp. The energy consumed would ultimately produce more mercury that simply sticking with a low-mercury fluorescent.
Ceramic metal halide (CMH) offers an energy efficient alternative to those people obsessed with the color of the light from the bulbs. While not as efficient at a CFL, it might be a good choice for color critical, commercial applications.
A light-emitting diode (LED) is a tiny semiconductor that emits light. It looks like a small bulb, but contains no filament. Because of their size and low output, dozens of these LEDs are arranged to create enough light.
Although LED's are twice as energy efficient as incandescent bulbs, they are still not as high as fluorescents. LEDs have an incredibly long life, some 30,000 to 50,000 hours. Currently, the costs are still to high for many uses.
As LED technology increases in energy efficiency and decreases in cost, you will see LED bulbs become very commonplace. It is important to note LEDs are the only non-incandescent light source that does not rely on mercury vapor.
Ironically, CFLs present an opportunity to prevent mercury from entering our air, where it most affects our health. The highest source of mercury in our air comes from burning fossil fuels such as coal, the largest source (54 percent) of electricity in the United States.
A CFL uses 75 percent less energy than an incandescent light bulb and lasts at least ten times longer. A power plant will emit 10mg of mercury to produce the electricity to run an incandescent bulb compared to only 2.4mg of mercury to run a CFL for the same time.
Safe disposal, combined with purchase of low mercury bulbs makes continued use of compact fluorescents a very wise choice.
Remember, saving energy prevents pollution. When you use less energy at home, you lessen greenhouse gas emissions in our atmosphere. Every CFL can prevent more than 450 pounds of emissions from a power plant over its lifetime.
- Energy Star: Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs Provides information on the significant energy efficiency benefits of using compact fluorescent lamps.
- Fact Sheet: Mercury in Compact Fluorescent Lamps (PDF) Provides benefits of CFLs and disposal information.
- EnviroZine's Q&A on CFLs and mercury.
- North Carolina's Department of Environment and Natural Resources has put together a useful roundup of facts on mercury in lightbulbs.