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
Jasmine Greene


Callie J.
Callie Johnson4 years ago

More info on CFLs, migraine and epilepsy:

Callie J.
Callie Johnson4 years ago

CFL bulbs give me headaches. And while I knew the connection between CFLs and migraines, I didn't realize they also had adverse effects on people with epilepsy and lupus.

Ken Decker
Kenneth Decker7 years ago

More people worry about the CFLs while the 2 foot and 4 foot tubes contain a lot more mercury. They must be disposed of properly.
BTW, most people who get headaches and eye strain from fluorescents have the old type magnetic ballasts that operate at line frequency, 60 Hz. They can actually sense the flicker. The new CFLs have solid state ballasts that operate near the 20 kHz range and flicker is not noticeable. The longer fluorescent fixtures can be converted to solid state ballasts and more efficient lamps. This eliminates flicker and is a considerable energy savings over magnetic ballasts and older lamps.

Rafael de Miguel
Rafael de Miguel7 years ago

The last (I hope):
And about environment compatibility, they are produced from Silicon (sand) and little traces of elements from the groups III and V (aluminum, boron, phosphor and so).
Believe me, not only I'm an engineer experienced in the field. I've been using them since as early as 1989, and I know how FL really behave...
We can't get rid of incandescence by the moment, but when the FLs might replace them properly, we'll don't need them, as LED will be too much better solution.

Rafael de Miguel
Rafael de Miguel7 years ago

About FLs, they work pretty right in the adequate conditions. If you use them in places where the light must be on for hours, and if you cause little on/off cycles. And be careful with heat emission, as they get spoiled quickly when there is not enough dissipation.
But their color efficacy is really bad. They took a few minutes to get in their steady-state, giving the most of the light, and works very bad in decoration and focused lamps.
If, on the contrary, you use them in places as sleeping-rooms, corridors, or where you have little ON/OFF cycles, they are not really energy-savers. When they starts they reach consumptions above the 80% of the normal state, and they get stressed, enduring less than incandescence ones. And they provide not enough light in those conditions. And they are, still, expensive.
But this is a matter of the past. We have now LED lamps, which are better in color, more useful in decoration, can be easily focused and mounted in a variety of forms, cheap to produce in large series, and provide a consumption of a few watts per lumen (around 2 or 5 by the moment). They stands for more than 100,000 Hours, and use continuous current; hence: no twinkling at all! And instant response. Today they are truly a rarity, but their development is fast and steady. Even you can get nowadays some lamps with color variation (color-shift, or steady color selection) from Osram or Phillips. And about environment compatibility, they are produced from Silicon (sand) and tra

Rafael de Miguel
Rafael de Miguel7 years ago

Well, I have to continue:
Normally they stand for more hours than normal bulbs; but if they are the old kind ones. We have (since 1976) halogens and pressed-crystal lamps. Cheaper than FL and much better in light efficiency, due to the hight temperature of the filament, they have no twinkle effect, and very good color spectrum (specially in red and yellow, what is more convenient for decoration). They are also very environment-friendly, as the main product is quartz, and a little wolfram, and very few halogen (fluorine in parts per million). I have three 100W of them since 1987, and they still are working. Normal life for them is larger than 20000 Hours continuous lighting.

Rafael de Miguel
Rafael de Miguel7 years ago

Well, this article is not exactly right. First, let me clarify that CFLs are those "old" light tubes, taking his place here and there in offices and shops. This were actually developed in the early years of the XX century (mainly in the US and Germany). But the bulbs you show in the pictures are really TFL or EFL. These are modern designs, based in electronic systems to stimulate the light emission. They where invented around the 75 by Phillips in Netherlands, and in fact have little mercury in their inside. Old CFL had larger quantities, specially in the kind of UV emission, but the latest had much less mercury, and for normal illumination, the main compound was (and still it is) phosphor.
Of course they are strongly contaminant when disposed in an inadequate mode, but this is not the main concern. The problem is they produce a bad color spectrum, and because their twinkle effect (60 Hz in the US and 50 Hz in Europe), are not good for human sight along large periods of use. The correct installation should be in coupled pairs, with a capacitor between them, and with color correction paired tubes.
Now the modern bulbs. These are less contaminant than the others, but they are more complex, requiring larger technological elements; hence they are not so "cost-saving" for the environment, when you consider the requirement in energy and prime materials for making them.
In other side, they are not so "long-life" as the industry pretends. Normally they stand for more hours than n

Elizie F.
.7 years ago

most people that are trying to help the environment out by using eco-products is that we must, as people who might be showing people these products, they must be affordable* and save money* for the people who might use these products in order to really begin to see a difference and have use of the eco-products....

Alfred D.
Past Member 7 years ago

I have several of these CFl bulbs in my house the government even sent me two of them free of charge.However I was not aware that they contained mercury one of these bulbs was damaged and I disposed of it in the trash.Why did the government not tell us that they should be disposed in a much safer way.I have noticed though that these bulbs are much slower to reach there full light capacity unlike the ordinary bulbs which lit up instantly.

Bobby A.
Bobby A.7 years ago

Thanks for posting. I hope some clear solution to lighting will emerge, before we are all left in the dark.