Compact fluorescent lamps



My interest in this subject came from a lot of talk on the web about replacing incandescent light bulbs with compact fluorescent lamps (CFL). Much of this talk is surely driven by the Answer the Call: Make The Commitment campaign that Live Earth is currently promoting. While I was confident that fluorescent was better at producing light for a given amount of energy coming from the socket, the mechanical engineer in me questioned that it was a free lunch.

It didn’t take long for me to start to realize that lunch costs money!

Let’s start with Wikipedia which is always a decent source but sometimes can’t be trusted so we will dig more lower in this post. You can read the full Wikipedia reference here but I will pull out a few key passages and then add my comments.

The actual environmental effect of CFLs is the subject of much debate. Apart from the gross electrical power saved during operation, it is questioned whether the amount of power and raw materials used in their manufacture compares well with incandescent lamps, and also whether the mercury used in CFLs is a significant environmental hazard.

For a given light output, CFLs use between one-fifth and one-quarter of the power of an equivalent incandescent lamp, thereby saving significant amounts of energy in use and reducing the need for electrical generation. However, the energy required to manufacture these lamps is significantly higher than incandescent lamps, as a result the total lifetime energy (from manufacture to disposal) may actually be higher, (due to the transportation of all the component parts around the world).

Since CFLs use less power to supply the same amount of light as an incandescent lamp of the same lumen rating, they can be used to decrease energy consumption at the location they are used in (though they have a much higher manufacturing and recycling energy requirement than standard lamps)

However, because household users have the option of disposing of these products in the same way they dispose of other solid waste, it is expected that most consumers dispose of old CFLs with their standard domestic waste. As each CFL manufactured by NEMA members contains up to 5-6 milligrams of mercury, at the Maine ?safety? standard of 300 nanograms per cubic meter, it would take 16,667 cubic meters of soil to ?safely? contain all the mercury in a single CFL. [Ed. note: As a visual, this is about the same as the dirt from a US football field taken 4 yards deep].

Using this limit landfill containing more than 1 CFL with 5mg of mercury per cubic meter would be considered hazardous.

If CFLs are recycled and the mercury reclaimed, the equation tilts towards CFLs, and if non-coal sources of electricity are used, the equation tilts toward [incandescent bulbs].

That sure doesn’t sound like a great way to save the environment! If it is almost a trade-off between incandescent bulbs and CFLs then how are we supposed to get to the 90% reduction pledge of that was called for by Live Earth?

So now I was a little befuddled. Is Wikipedia wrong? Are CFLs so bad for the environment? Why would former Vice President Al Gore recommend something that wasn’t good for the environment? Surely, this was all wrong so I did more searches on Google and found this site on light bulb recycling (someone is making money off of this problem)

The Mercury from one fluorescent bulb can pollute 6,000 gallons of water beyond safe levels for drinking.

It is unlawful for anyone to dispose of fluorescent bulbs as universal waste in the states of California, Minnesota, Ohio, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, and Wisconsin. [Ed. Note: Didn’t know that and I live in one of those states!]

Each year, an estimated 600 million fluorescent lamps are disposed of in US landfills amounting to 30,000 pounds of mercury waste.

By my math that means every year we already pollute 3.6 trillion gallons of water every year. To put that into perspective, this is the approximately the amount of water that flows down the Ohio River into the Mississippi River in 20 days. To put it in more perspective, if every person is supposed to drink 8-8oz glasses of water every day than this is enough water to hydrate 5 billion people for 4 years!

It sure doesn’t seem that we should be INCREASING the use of CFLs. Maybe we should spend time trying to ban their use! Perhaps we could get a former US Vice President to take up the cause – what is Walter Mondale doing these days?

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14 thoughts on “Compact fluorescent lamps”

  1. Lara says:

    First, CF bulbs contain far less mercury than in other items in the house: CF bulbs (4 mg), thermometers (500 mg), older thermostats (3,000 mg). Plus, using CF bulbs actually prevents more mercury from being released into the air by power plants. A power plant emits about 10 mg of mercury to produce the electricity needed to run an incandescent bulb, compared to only 2.4 mg of mercury to run a CF bulb for the same amount of time.

    Should a bulb break, take these simple precautions. First, open nearby windows to disperse any vapor that may escape. Sweep up the fragments (do not use your hands) and wipe the area with a disposable paper towel to pick up all glass fragments. Do not use a vacuum. Place all fragments in a sealed plastic bag and follow the disposal instructions below.

    – How should I dispose of my burned-out bulbs?

    Recycling burned-out CFs is the best option. To find out if there are recycling options near you, call 1-800-CLEAN-UP for an automated hotline or visit (At the top of the home page, enter your zip code and press “go.” Click on the “Household Hazardous Waste” link, then the “fluorescent bulbs” link. This page will identify the nearest mercury recycling or disposal facilities near you. If the page contains no specific information on CFs, go back and click on the link for “Mercury Containing Items.”)

    Or contact your local government agency in charge of household hazard waste (start with your sanitation department) to see if recycling is an option in your area.

  2. Posting a response to your comment on my blog:

    Thanks for commenting, and your points are certainly valid. I personally like CFs, even with their own environmental concerns.

    It really depends–I tried to find some statistics on how much energy was required to manufacture incandescent and fluorescent light bulbs, but failed miserably for the moment. However, if you assume that the average CF bulb lasts 10 times longer than the average incandescent bulb, then in order for the manufacturing of incandescent bulbs to be even as efficient as fluorescent bulbs then they would have to consume ten times less energy in production. Even if this is true (which is what I was trying to discern), the difference of manufacturing energy and disposal energy adjusted for lifespan would still have to make up for the energy saved during use.

    Also, use of fluorescent versus incandescent bulbs in relation to disposal costs is sort of a difficult argument to make. The effect of mercury in fluorescent bulbs on the environment is up to the responsibility of the user and efficiency of the recycling process. Now, I know that the average person can’t really be relied on to recycle the CF bulbs, but hopefully with a bit of education as well as rise in popularity of these bulbs, getting in the habit of recycling these bulbs shouldn’t be too hard.

    I won’t say that CFs are a cure all, but I think that they have too much promise to dismiss them as an alternative to incandescent light bulbs. If you want to go all out and really cut down on the energy you use and pollution you create, then you should look into a different solution; but for the average person that wants to make at least a little effort, CFs are a good starting point.

    Another thing to remember is that CF bulbs are most likely not a huge contributor to the current mercury pollution from fluorescent bulbs because the regular fluorescent tubes such as those used in businesses, offices, schools, etc. Their use and improper disposal probably account for a vast majority of mercury pollution due to fluorescent lamps. Also, these lamps have been used much longer than their compact equivalents–in mass production since 1938. A lack of education about proper disposal of these bulbs causes a much larger impact than CF bulbs.

  3. Ronald Lindeman says:

    I read about somebody who in a newspaper article said they dropped a bulb, which broke, and then had a huge waste disposal problem in their bedroom. I had a burned out CF bulb and I dropped it a few times from 5 feet on concrete and couldn’t get it to break. (I’m not recommending that for anyone else by the way) People who are against something will just look for something to be against it.

  4. Ryan Baker says:

    I thought I left a comment here yesterday providing a link back to response, hosted on my blog, in response to your link on my blog.

    It’s not showing up so I’ll try again.

    Your facts are generally mistaken, though I’m sure you published them with the best of intentions. A simple test will prove that energy consumed in manufacturing of a CFL is not greater than it’s energy savings. If a CFL costs $3.50, it is unlikely to have more than $3.50 in energy invested. It is impossible that it would have $80 in energy invested.

  5. Anthony says:

    Saw you comments on ProBlogger and thought I’d stop by.

    The whole Live Earth message seemed to be change your light bulbs, save the world. Was it sponsored by a CFL manufacturer or something?

    I’m glad someone is asking questions and not just blindly running to the Home Depot to go green.

  6. admin says:

    Anthony –

    Thank you for your comment.

    IMHO, the LiveEarth pitch is a classic bait and switch tactic. The first few items on the list are actually easy for someone to do but have little long term effect on the environment. This makes is easy for someone to sign up. The last item though is the kicker – it says that you are calling for all nations to reduce their GHG by a huge percentage that would likely throw the economy into the tank for a long time. Most people wouldn’t agree to pay the costs of this reduction even though it sounds good at first glance. But by getting people to take the pledge, they are creating a very strong message that XX million people agree that world leaders should cut GHG by this huge margin.

    I would feel better about the pledge if they would just be honest and say they suggest that everyone cut GHG by XX% and that would mean that gasoline would go to XX price and fuel oil would go to XX price, and food products would go to XX price. Then everyone would know what they were getting into – but then no one would agree.

  7. Gary Music says:

    LED’s are the way to go. And the price is coming down, you have to be a little creative in the application because most of the current LED bulbs don’t disperse light the same way as a CFL, it is more directed in one direction. But with a little imagination most people could light their house with about 100 watts using LED’s.

  8. Gary Music says:

    Oops I forgot. An LED will probably outlive the owner. So landfill space will not be a problem.

  9. mr_azri says:

    I like the way you post your articles. You ought to write more so that you can share more of your thoughts with your readers. Keep it up. Write more on this post please.

  10. David says:

    great stuff thank you 🙂

  11. Paige Flores says:

    Incandescent light bulbs will soon be phased out because they waste a lot of energy.,-`

  12. Dimmable CFL says:

    True CFLs have mercury, but if they are disposed of properly (like batteries are) I think the problem should be minimal. Trouble is people need to be educated not the throw them in the regular trash.

    This really is a medium term issue that I think will be solved when LED bulbs are cheap enough.

Comments are closed.