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The Truth About CFLs: Compact Fluorescent Bulbs

by TimJones on April 22, 2010

In 2014, the only lightbulb choice we’ll have is those little, coiled compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) that everyone’s selling, now.  I posted a video, last week, that detailed the clean-up procedure for these CFLs.  In honor of Earth Day, I thought I’d post about the hazards, energy implications, and truth about these CFL bulbs.

Not only do these bulbs contain mercury, they require lighting fixtures rated for CFLs, go through an expensive recycling process (on the few occasions that people actually recycle them), and when they’re not recycled, you’re wrapping them in two plastic bags to prevent mercury leakage into our soil.  Let’s break down each of these items.

CFL Mercury Content

Every single CFL contains a very small amount of mercury, one of the most powerful neurotoxins known to man, amounting to about 4-5 milligrams.  Let me start by saying that this is a very small amount, especially if it’s released outdoors.  However, releasing this amount of mercury in your home or even a small room in your home can pose serious health risks to children, elderly, pets, and those sensitive to mercury.  You can see in the clean-up procedure recommended by the EPA that you must take extreme measures to clean up a CFL break in your home.  Note the clothing and bedding section where it’s recommended that you throw away any clothing or bedding that comes into contact with the broken CFL!

You will also find on the “Energy Star” site, linked above, a pretty little chart showing that the mercury in a single CFL is overcome by the energy produced to power a standard incandescent bulb versus the energy produced to power a CFL.  It looks rather convincing, but I’ll show you in a bit why it loses a lot of validity when examined further.  Also, these “mercury” levels emitted by energy producers cited by the EPA don’t take into account that the mercury from power plants goes through “scrubbers,” is monitored by the EPA, and is emitted into the air, not my bedroom.  I’d also like to know how they arrived at a mercury impact of only 0.6 milligrams for landfilling a CFL when each bulb contains between 4 and 5 milligrams?

Compact Fluorescent Mercury Emissions

Longer Life Span

As noted in the graph above, the longer life of a CFL bulb accounts for the “less mercury being emitted into the air” claim.

“CFLs last SO much longer than those old incandescent bulbs!”  That’s how they sell these bulbs, right?  ”They’ll last for years!”

Not so fast.  Let’s start with the time that you have a CFL on.  Compact fluorescent bulbs are designed to be on for extended periods of time to meet their rated life — I’m talking 4 hours, continuously.  If you only leave one on for an hour, the rated life drops by 20% and as much as 50%.  If you cycle it on and off like most of us do in our homes, you’ve reduced the rated life by 70% – 85%! So, for the example the EPA uses in the graph above, an 8,000 hour CFL would now only last 1,200 hours.  You’re now down in the range of many incandescent bulbs rated life.

We’re not done, though.  CFLs function optimally in light fixtures designed for compact fluorescent bulbs.  Not only will installing a CFL in a non-CFL rated fixture reduce the service life of the CFL (now we’d be getting down below the service life of those nasty, old incandescent bulbs), but the CFL bulb may not fit or produce the same lighting for the area.  Additionally, most CFLs do not work in a dimmer fixture, unless the CFL is rated for dimmers and the fixture is designed for a dimmer CFL.  How “environmental” will it be for homeowners to tear out and install new light fixtures?

It’s sounding more and more like these are not the grand solution everyone’s expecting and in 2014, you’ll have no other choice.  Let’s continue looking at these “green” Earth savers.

Recycling CFLs

To start this section, let’s look at how many people actually recycle CFLs.  In 2007, approximately 400 million CFLs were purchased with less than 2% being recycled means we put 320 million into our landfills.  How many of those do you think were put into two plastic bags to prevent mercury from leeching into the earth’s soil?

I had a great deal of difficulty finding any information on what exactly the process is for recycling a compact fluorescent bulb.  You can find it, you just have to search Google a bit (something I recommend for you to do with any information you’re provided online, including this post).  No one seems to account for the massive amount of energy, the machinery needed to recycle a CFL, the extra trucking for transporting the CFL to the recycling facility, the cost of packaging required for CFL recycling, and so on.  All these costs in both energy and money need to be considered, if we’re going to make a fair comparison between CFLs and incandescent bulbs.  Let’s break this down a bit.

To recycle a CFL bulb, you must first package it in an appropriate container to prevent breaking.  Most recycling facilities will not accept broken CFLs — probably because their job is done, the mercury has already been released into your home.  Now it’s just a bunch of glass.  As for the packaging, the EPA recommends re-using the box the CFL bulbs came in or using the one from the replacement bulbs.  You can also purchase boxes from your local home supply store to safely hold and transport your CFL bulbs to your local recycling location.  I’m sure those boxes aren’t using trees for the cardboard, right?

Once you’ve dropped your CFL bulb, unbroken, in a cardboard box, off at your local Home Depot or IKEA (two of many retail locations that accept CFL bulbs for recycling), they must now be transported in a recycling truck (a different one than picks up your home trash, home debris, or home recyclables) to the nearest CFL/mercury recycling facility.  I’m sure that giant trash/recycling truck runs on biodiesel or propane, right?

Whew!  We’re almost there.  By the way, your old incandescent bulb went out with your trash on the same truck that picks up everything else and has been safely deposited in your local landfill for over a week,now.

As for your CFL, it’s on it’s way to the recycling center where it will be mechanically broken, have the mercury extracted, be tested to ensure that all mercury was extracted from the bulb, re-extract mercury if necessary, assuming the mercury can be recycled on-site it will be recycled for use in new CFLs, otherwise it will have to be shipped to a mercury recycling facility.  Once recycled, you must ship the mercury (remember, a powerful neurotoxin) off to a CFL manufacturer (almost every one of them is made in China — just a short boat trip that doesn’t use any fuel, I’m sure), and finally deposit the remaining glass into the landfill.  Oh yeah, now that truck that picked up your incandescent bulb has to come to the mercury recycling facility to pick up the left over glass do put in the landfill with your other incandescent bulbs.

I think you can see now that CFLs may not be the “green” solution we’re hoping for with regard to our indoor lighting.  However, with little or no forethought or research, the US Congress has deemed these CFLs to be the lighting you need in your home.  In 2014, incandescent bulbs will no longer be available for purchase.

I would love to have your input on this topic.  What’s the solution?  Can we stop the incandescent ban in 2014?  Are there alternatives to the CFLs that will be available in 2014?

Please note: I specifically did not “blame” any political party or group.  This is not a political blog.  If you want to comment on some of the items discussed in the post or refute the technical aspects of CFLs presented in the post, I welcome that.  Political back-biting and mudslinging comments will be deleted.

Related posts:

  1. Compact Fluorescent Bulb Clean Up Procedure

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

theyurtingyeti April 22, 2010 at 11:35 am

The main reason I use CFLs is for the energy savings in the home. You make excellent pionts, and those points carry across to almost ANY green technology (electric cars for instance).

As to the ban on incandescent bulbs, I'm surprised we went so far as to ban their sale. CFLs do allow us to use less electricity in the home for fairly comparable lighting. What really needs to be done (and this dovetails with what you are talking about) is the continued education and refinment of how we handle our recycling. The methods by which we recycle most anything can be improved so that costs are reduced (both literally and environmentally).

You mentioned a few in your post on transport. Converting transport to things like biodeisel or other eco-fuels are steps in making the overall process more eco-friendly.

In terms of the toxicity of Hg in those CFLs, you are 100% correct. It is pretty nasty stuff. CFLs are not the solution, but only a stepping stone. I'm curious what your thoughts are on the LED bulbs that are starting to come about? They are safer, use less energy, and are easier(?) to recycle.

In any event, to honor Earth Day, the point really must be made that steps are taken so our society makes choices so our immediate impact on the environment is reduced (even at the expense of the environment via transport/processing). Once those changes begin, improvement must then be made to make the back end of our transactions more environmentally sound (increased use of bio-fuels for boats/trucks, safer recycling practices, etc.)

Excellent post, and I hope to see more like it (from you and others). It really does bring to light the need to improve beyond the point of purchase to really have an impact — thanks:)

Tim_Jones April 22, 2010 at 3:37 pm

Thanks for the comment!

Under current technology and in homes without CFL designed fixtures, you actually aren't saving much money or energy. In some instances (the lower rated/less expensive) CFL bulbs, their actual service life is less than a standard incandescent bulb.

I have not done much research behind LEDs, other than my own anecdotal evidence that you have similar “quality of lighting” issues as you do with CFLs, often worse with LED. Just doesn't have the same effect. Indoor lighting is for humans, not buildings and I think that fact needs to taken into account. Check out some of the things people with migraine problems say about CFLs and you'll get an idea of how much of an impact indoor lighting can have on your well-being.

“steps are taken so our society makes choices so our immediate impact on the environment is reduced (even at the expense of the environment via transport/processing)”

Can't say that I agree with you, here, but I'm afraid I'd be heading down a path I don't intend to follow on this blog. For now, I'll just agree to disagree.

Ultimately, I believe we should have the choice as to what lighting we want to have in our own homes, not have the government mandate it. I tend to fall down on the side of liberty and personal freedom (which also comes with personal responsibility) on most issues, including this one.

theyurtingyeti April 22, 2010 at 4:33 pm

I can agree that the government really shouldn't be saying what we can or can't use for lighting … but like you said, that's a political issue that doesn't need to come up here.

In terms of saving money with bulb replacement, I think you are right that I'll be replacing the lights at about the same rates as my incandescent lights. The savings come from the lower wattage for the light to run. I have not done any hard testing but anecdotally I've seen the electric bill come down with their use.

I like your take on LEDs and most artificial lights in that they are definitely not natural light. I never really thought incandescent light was all that natural either, but they were much closer than florescent. There are CFLs that claim a more natural spectrum, but I'm unsure exactly how natural it is. I'd much rather have a window:)

Hopefully, in time, we will make it far enough so that there is a viable replacement for CFLs that is green and can give comparable lighting.

Tim_Jones April 22, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Anecdotally, I have also seen a reduction in electric bills (not mine — someone else's).

Agreed, I hope we find a viable replacement, too. I'd just like to see the market determine the winner.

David P. McConnell September 30, 2010 at 9:02 am

you forgot to mention the fact that when put into two plastic bags and thrown into a landfill, that those two plastic bags are supposed to protect the bulb from the multi ton bulldozers that push the trash around with their mashing tracks that obliterate anything that they run over.

Recycling CFLs October 8, 2010 at 4:08 am

Although the amount of mercury in a CFL is much less than that in a can of tuna, CFLs are considered household hazardous waste. By law, they must be either be recycled or taken to an approved hazardous waste disposal site.

Sally weber December 17, 2010 at 5:05 pm

What can be done about the fact that we will soon be forced to buy these bulbs?
All new fixtures are only being made to accept them and cannot be retrofitted to regular bulbs. This is so aggravating. We should have a choice. Some people cannot tolerate flourescent lighting.

Drew514 January 3, 2011 at 9:23 pm

A couple points, 1. If you are the type of person that turns on and off lights in your house and want to save money and energy, then don't buy CFL bulbs. They use more energy for start up than an incandescent. If you are going to leave the bulb on 24/7 then yes CFL's are more efficent. 2. I am an electrician and the financial pain that CFL's will cause are greater than the price of the bulb. Home owners won't be able to use the dimmers they have now for their lights, they would have to buy special dimmers for CFL bulbs, which the dimmer industry isn't up to par with CFL's. Alot of lighting fixures have type A bulbs which will not allow bigger type CFL bulb. I think that this is only the beginning on what the cost and the health risks are and will be.

I am also a certified lead renovator and I consider CFL's to be just as dangerous as lead, especially for our youg children. The cleaning procedures for a lead clean up job are tight and by the book, far as cleaning inspections and waste removal. Now what happens to a home owner or even an electrician who drops and breaks a bulb? What kind of cleaning or waste removal guide lines are we going to have, or will we have for toxic clean up? This all sound like another way suck more money out of the already tapped, blue collar, tax paying american. (Sorry got a little crazy for a minute.) Someone please tell me how this came about and who is behind it. Thanks AJ

Yukii January 19, 2011 at 4:54 pm

They sure do not last very long

Iggylights April 3, 2011 at 12:59 am

Here's a giant elephant in the living room that I can't seem to find any info about ANYWHERE. CFL bulbs are being marketed as an energy efficient alternative to incandescent, up to one fifth of the energy used for the amount of light output. Has anyone actually verified this? I metered the draw of a 14 watt CFL that is supposed to be the equivalent of a 60 watt incandescent and it was actually drawing close to 50 watts! I used a light meter to see if the light output was comparable and the CFL was 20% less. Where is the energy savings? I thought it might just be an anomaly so I tested CFLs of various wattage and manufacturers and it always came up the same. The load it was drawing was very close to the advertised equivalent in incandescent.

Try it yourself. Your local Home Depot or Lowes sells a digital meter called an “appliance tester” that you can use to see what various household electrical items draw. I paid around $30 for mine. I verified with numerous other known loads that it is accurate. All of the so-called “60 watt equivalents” I tested were in the 50 to 55 watt range. I have combed the internet to see if anyone else has noticed this and it seems like I am the only one. This is my first posting about this but I plan to find other sites that are “shedding light” on the CFL scam and posting on them too. Don't just take my word for it, test them yourself and you will see that there is no real energy savings.

If you really want to save energy and have a lamp with long life, LED is the only way to go. They contain no mercury, really do use 1/10 the power and last so long, you may never have to replace them.

Please spread the word. CFL is a scam. They are of no benefit.

Tim_Jones April 4, 2011 at 12:51 pm

I'm trying, Iggy! Thanks for the comment. :)

anony.ms April 28, 2011 at 6:46 pm

there isn't a federal law. The state regulates the legislation in relation to waste. it is assumed that the consumer will take the product to a proper disposal facility. Most consumers are to distracted by the EPA funded Energy Star rating to pay attention to the tiny print that says “hey this bulb has enough mercury to contaminate 7000 gallons of water”.

David Reed August 15, 2011 at 9:26 pm

This is an interesting article, but it just plain ignores a lot of easily observable facts.

For example, I’ve been using CFL bulbs for years in old light fixtures never designed for CFL’s. Same bulbs, ever since I bought them. YEARS. Turning them on-and-off regularly, not ever really running them for hours.

So it’s directly observable to me that what you say just plain isn’t accurate. Based not just on one bulb, but on an entire home filled with them for a most of a decade.

Your thoughts?

TimJones August 16, 2011 at 10:17 am

My thoughts are that you’re citing anecdotal evidence. My experience has been just the opposite, but that’s just my experience. What I used to write the article was research done with the CFLs and non-CFL fixtures.

treryt October 4, 2011 at 1:27 pm

The real danger about the CFLs is not the mercury, but the UV radiation they are emmiting.
It’s definitely not a thing to put near your face or eyes.


Of course, the old smokers and people who work in the sun all day long shouldn’t care.

Dale January 5, 2012 at 8:18 pm

About 60percent of the bulbs I use in my house are cfl bulbs, however, I still want to have the freedom use incandescent bulbs where I believe they work better such as in the bathroom, outside, dimmers and and small lamps. I should have the freedom to do so, down with the environmental dictatorship, power to the people.

Terrie January 15, 2012 at 5:36 am

I am from Zimbabwe and I am an environmental and climate change activist. When I first heard about the CFLs, I thought they would be the best solution to electricity in my country. The worst part for us is although some house holds have started using them, they are not aware of the health and environmental dangers they pose. We don’t have the facilities to recycle and most of our waste doesn’t end up at the landfill, people dumb their waste by roadsides and later on burn the waste because gabage is not collected regularly. Quite a number of households use them, including hotels. I am to conduct a survey on how they are disposed off.

Some people agree that they use less energy though. Any suggestions are welcome on how best we can deal with the situation in our country. Unlike in the states we still have the liberty to choose which ones to use.

May I please have more information on the LED from anyone. Thank you.

Denise January 30, 2012 at 12:55 am

Choice!!!!! End of story!!!

Deb February 29, 2012 at 12:05 pm

I’ve been totally unwilling to have CFL bulbs in my home with an elementary school child. We’re moving to LED lights as our old incandescents burn out. The lighting quality is not quite as nice as incandescent but it is good enough.

As for the mercury in CFLs. KQED science reported on a study by Lawrence Livermore Labs that sheds some light on the mercury in tuna vs mercury in a CFL (they are different kinds of mercury and create different kinds of risks) http://science.kqed.org/quest/2009/06/12/how-toxic-is-a-busted-compact-florescent-bulb/ . The article’s conclusion seems to be that a broken CFL in your home is no more dangerous than eating one can of tuna. Guess I’ll be eating less tuna. ;->

Erac April 29, 2012 at 8:12 am

I’ve been changing the lighting in my house to CFL over the last ten years, when an incandescent popped I replaced it with a CFL. The early bulbs were expensive but lasted well (some are still going), since then the price has fallen dramatically and the lamps are now only a few dollars more. I’ve had one or two cheap lamps that have failed quickly but generally they’ve lasted more than 5 years – the moral is buy good quality lamps. Note that this is turning lamps on and off as I would with incandescents – I’ve not seen any drop off in life.

On the power front, all the CFLs I’ve measured (several dozen) have a power consumption of within a watt of the labelled value. So replacing a 60W incandescent with a 15W CFL for 1,000 hours a year (approx 3 hours per day) at 10 cents per kWh saves $4.50 per year, most of the additional cost of the CFL.

On the recycling front, it’s certainly a good idea to recycle properly but even if you don’t the dangers may be overstated – see http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/332178/title/Some_comfort_about_broken_CFLs

Looking at the cost of recycling, companies like IKEA or Home Depot are going to collect a lot of bulbs before they ship them anywhere. They’ll probably stick them on a couple of pallets in the back of a big truck where the additional fuel consumption will be small, but lets say they fill a van with say 10,000 CFLs (about 140 cubic feet) and drive it 3000 miles all the way across the USA to the furthest recycling plant they can find, say 120 gallons of fuel or about 4000 kWh. That’s the energy saved by those 10,000 CFL in under 10 hours of use. Container ships are more than 600 times more fuel efficient per ton of cargo, so even shipping all those CFL back to China (say 7,000 miles) would be saved by using the CFLs for another couple of minutes!

If you want some other figures look at http://michaelbluejay.com/electricity/cfl.html

Colour and start up time can be irritating but incandenscents aren’t natural light by any means. As history shows, not everybody likes change: “‘A Working Man’, writing to the Doncaster Gazette in November 1897, implied that the introduction of electric lighting was a form of corruption. He accused the ‘shopocracy’ of inducing the council to spend rate-payers money on the introduction of electric lighting for the benefit of the few.” – see http://doncasterhistory.co.uk/local-history-2/doncaster-takes-shape/electricity-comes-to-doncaster/

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