Do changing lightbulbs really help the environment?, 36°

Nick Lewis 2448°

I've heard that high-efficiency bulbs actually contain rather nasty stuff like mercury. Is that true? And if so, which is better, using less electricity or keeping such nasties out of our landfills?

16 replies

Here in Canada, people are now talking about using propane to fuel vehicles. It's cheaper and cleaner, they say. But as demand goes up, the price will rise and how clean is "cleaner"? It seems like we try so hard to find alternatives - low energy lightbulbs, bio-fuels, etc. - to keep living the way we've always lived when what we really need to do is turn the darned lights out for longer! So, yeah, I'm on the side of using less electricity rather than consuming more stuff (which seems to always have its own associated problems - like the mercury in lightbulbs)...

Written in June 2008

3 people think this is a cool reply

Matthew W. 471°

Lauren - couldn't agree with you more. It's simply a matter of being smart about the amount of anything we use. All we need to do is think a little when we do anything - 'how can i be more efficient'...

Written in June 2008

I heard on NPR that it would take 100 discarded CF bulbs to equal the amount of mercury in one old fashioned glass thermometer. With many of them lasting 9-11 years it seems reasonable to me.

Written in June 2008

Nick- great question, and I'm glad to see its prompted a good discussion here. Clearly the best possible solution is to simply not use electricity.
However, I don't expect to see us completely giving up on artificial lighting altogether-- and if we have to have electric lights, CFLs are definitely the way to go.
The mercury contained in a CFL is less than the mercury that would be produced in the production of energy for an incandescent bulb. To see more data on this, check out wikipedia:(

A compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), also called compact fluorescent light, energy-saving light, and compact fluorescent tube, is a fluorescent lamp designed to replace an incandescent lamp; some types fit into light fixtures formerly used for incandescent lamps. The lamps use a tube which is curved or folded to fit into the space of an incandescent bulb, and a compact electronic ballast in the base of the lamp.

Compared to general-service incandescent lamps giving the same amount of visible light, CFLs use one-fifth to one-third the electric power, and last eight to fifteen times longer. A CFL has a higher purchase price than an incandescent lamp, but can save over five times its purchase price in electricity costs over the lamp's lifetime.[2] Like all fluorescent lamps, CFLs contain toxic mercury[3] which complicates their disposal. In many countries, governments have established recycling schemes for CFLs and glass generally.

The principle of operation in a CFL bulb remains the same as in other fluorescent lighting: electrons that are bound to mercury atoms are excited to states where they will radiate ultraviolet light as they return to a lower energy level; this emitted ultriaviolet light is converted into visible light as it strikes the fluorescent phosphorous coating on the bulb (as well as into heat when absorbed by other materials such as glass).

The advantage here is that while CFL mercury is in one place, and easy to store safely (or reuse!) the mercury emitted by burning coal to power an incandescent light is diffusely spread through our atmosphere, and will find its way into our lakes, streams, and fish.

Written in June 2008

3 people think this is a cool reply

The bulbs may help in some ways, but "green" bulbs as they are now have a mild flicker that causes severe headaches. This is the reason I can't use them. Hopefully, someday they'll improve.

Written in June 2008

Hmmm. I just saw Ted Poe assert that all CF bulbs are made in China. Is this true? Is there no US production of these bulbs?

Written in June 2008

CFLs use about 1/5 of the power of a typical incandenscent bulb. The power reduction is very substantial and since most power in North America comes from burning coal or other fossil fuels, using incandescent bulbs is completely irresponsible and highly destructive to the environment.
CFL bulbs do contain trace amounts of mercury, much less than a typical dental filling, as do all florescent lights. This mercury is only released if the bulb is broken, but it is a form of mercury which is unlikely to cause environmental hazards. However, these bulbs should be returned to a recycling station when they burn out. You should be aware that the leading cause of environmental mercury contamination is emissions from coal fired electrical generation stations, which release mercury in a form which is easily absorbed into the food chain. You will prevent far more mercury pollution by using a CFL, by reducing coal consumption, than could possibly be caused by them. Even hydro rich BC, imports coal generated power from Alberta, so you will be doing the environment a huge favour by using CFL bulbs, no matter where you live due to the interconnectiveness of the North American power grid. These bulbs do not have any detectable flicker, unlike older tube florescent lamps. CFLs do not flicker! This is just a myth. As an experiment, a friend replaced all her incandescents with CFLs in her apartment and her power bill fell by 40% per month, and she got her money back in 3 months, from the savings!

Written in June 2008

Jamey B. 40°

Solid State Lighting i.e. high power LEDs contain NO mercury! Just as (and quickly becoming MORE) energy efficient as CFL and in cool colors as well as the various shades of white.
They contain a semiconductor material and the white LEDs contain a smidgen of phosphorous.

Written in July 2008

1 person thinks this is a cool reply

after changing all my bulbs with cfl's, my electricity bill went waaaaay down. that alone makes alot of sense, no?

Written in July 2008

Jak Ollett 120°

They do make a difference, for all the reasons you know already. The trouble is the Khazzoom-Brookes postulate which identifies our tendency to increase consumption when something becomes more efficent or cheaper. changing bulbs does not mean we will need less energy for lighting than before, it all depends on how we approach it. another problem with this lightbulb issue is the exposure it gets compared to bigger and deeper issues. how often do we hear of advertising telling us to slow comsumption, reduce meat, act politically, demand an end to deforestation, don't fly... etc etc. i think too many people are made to feel like they should be proud of having done their bit to save the world, however small it is, i.e. bringing own bag to shops. to congratulate yourself too early might slow a desire to do more.

a bigger message is needed, how about "change idea's as well as lightbulbs - think"?

Written in July 2008

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