Are CFLs Good for the Environment?
Compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) have been touted as the replacement for incandescent bulbs for years. Incandescent bulbs are extremely inefficient, the bulb creates 90% heat and 10% light, and with lighting accounting for 20% of residential electricity, incandescents bump up the energy bills for most homeowners. A CFL, on the other hand, produces the same amount of light as incandescent bulbs but uses only a quarter of the energy. Not only that, but it also lasts for several years and comes in a variety of colors. This alternative has been around since the 1930s, however many retailers do not carry a wide variety of CFLs due to the high prices (some cost $20) and low demand (Source: Wall Street Journal). The question here, however, is not if CFLs save homeowners money, but if they actually are good for the environment. After all, many countries are beginning to ban incandescent lights within the next decade: Canada has called for a ban by 2012, Australia by 2010 and the USA by 2014 (Source: Wikipedia), it’s important to know if the switch is actually a positive change.
While using CFLs will allow people to decrease their energy consumption, a good start to decreasing greenhouse emissions, the main problem of CFLs is the mercury they contain. Mercury is extremely toxic to humans, no matter how minute. So why do CFLs have mercury in them? Basically, a CFL is gas that fluoresces when in its excited state. This gas then produces a UV ray that reacts with mercury and a phosphorescent chemical to create visible light. While CFLs only contain 5 milligrams of mercury, it can still be deadly. (Source: Fox News). A woman in Maine, Brandy Bridges, broke a CFL and had to pay $2,000 to clean up the area where the bulb shattered. While the price was extravagant levels of mercury vapor in the air (even after clean up) can exceed federal guidelines for chronic exposure by as much as 100 times (Source: Boston Globe).
But is the amount of mercury in CFLs something to worry about? Wendy Reed, the manager of the EPA Energy Star program, states that despite the bulbs containing mercury, using them actually contributes less mercury to the environment than incandescent since coal plants are the largest source of mercury emissions in the air (Source: NPR). One of the other major issues dealing with the mercury in CFLs is proper disposal/recycling While people never had to worry about incandescent light disposal (just toss it in the trash), CFLs must be disposed of properly, otherwise the mercury can leech into a water system or even into the soil. Many counties and cities in the US offer a collection/exchange program for mercury containing devices, but they are not always readily available. Some stores have taken the initiative, such as Home Depot and Ikea, and have started an in-store CFL recycling programStill, the EPA is pressuring more large retailers to start a disposal/recycling program like Home Depot in order to make sure the bulbs are truly environmentally friendly.
Overall, while the mercury in CFLs can leech into the air, water or soil, the energy saving effects as well as the increased amount of CFL disposal programs in the US definitely make CFLs environmentally friendly. Many CFL developers have created bulbs that have even less mercury. States such as Maine have even created a legislation requiring manufacturers to reduce the amount of mercury in these bulbs (Source: Boston Globe). While there will still be people against CFLs because of the mercury and cost, the majority of companies and people of the US have embraced fluorescent bulbs into their home in order to save on their electric bill and cut back greenhouse emissions. And who can say no to saving money and the environment