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Seeing the Light

August 12, 2010

By Jennifer Chaky

Many people hear about the mercury in compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs)—the spiraly new kind of light bulbs—and they wonder if they are truly better for the environment than traditional light bulbs. Let me set the record straight: Yes, they are still way better for the environment, and here’s why.

CFLs use 75% less energy than their traditional old-school counterparts and last 10 times longer. This means a cost savings of at least $30 over the life of each bulb. This clearly shows that these bulbs pay for themselves. But this energy saving means another important thing: most of our electricity comes from coal-fired power plants. This is just about the dirtiest form of energy we have. Landscapes and mountains are raped and destroyed in order to extract the coal. This degradation then causes total destruction to waterways that are downstream from these mines. Then the coal is transported and burned, releasing mercury, yes mercury, into the air. That is how our air and water and aquatic life are poisoned with mercury. The insignificant amount of mercury contained in CFLs is not a concerning source of mercury poisoning in comparison.

In fact, even if all the CFLs sold in a year (290 million were sold in 2007, which is the latest data I could find) were sent to a landfill, they would release .16 metric tons of mercury into the environment. Compare this to 104 million metric tons of mercury released into the air from power plants every year, and you can see that the trade-off is clear—the amount of mercury in CFLs  is acceptable in order to lower the amount emitted from coal plants.

But what’s more, CFLs can and should be recycled at the end of their life. Nearly all components of fluorescent  bulbs can be recycled—metal end caps, glass tubing, mercury, phosphor powder, and so on—and numerous federal and state guidelines exist regarding the disposal of these lighting products. Visit this site to find facilities in the United States and here for New Jersey specifically. Ikea and The Home Depot are probably two of the most convenient places to drop off used ligtbulbs.

So go on out and get CFLs for every fixture in your house. They have come a long way and are available in a range of color temperatures and shapes and sizes. This is an easy green switch that in this day and age, everyone should do.  Isn’t it about time Thomas Edison’s good old invention was updated?

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 16, 2010 12:39 pm

    As rising energy costs and environmental concerns become increasingly important factors in consumers’ and businesses’ purchasing selections, fluorescent lamps and CFLs have increased in popularity. Although CFLs contain small quantities of mercury—which can cause environmental, safety and health consequences—incandescent bulbs actually result in more mercury pollution. While incandescents do not contain mercury, they still contribute to its release into the environment. Because burning coal to generate electricity releases mercury into the air and incandescent bulbs use more electricity over their lifetimes, they are responsible for more energy consumption and ultimately more mercury emissions than CFLs.

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