Saturday, September 24, 2011

CFLs: To Use or Not to Use?

The light bulb: sexy, sleek, fragile. In use for over a hundred years, these have been lighting homes with their conductive filaments. Simple to use, with colored, white or clear glass, these have been a staple of households since most of us can remember. Screw it in, it lights up. Simple! Magic!

Thanks to engineers looking for an ever-growing number of ways to reduce global energy use, the CFL (compact fluorescent light) was introduced with glowing (ha!) reviews; they last 8 to 15 times longer than our sexy incandescent bulbs and use 20-33% less energy. Well! Here's a great way to save the planet, right?

Well...  maybe.

CFLs, like all fluorescent lamps (not our sexy bulbs), contain mercury as vapor inside their glass tubing. (You know what they look like, right? Here's one.)

Spirals. Hmm. But hey, saving energy helps you save money on utility bills and protects the environment by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, right?

So anyway, CFLs generally contain about 3–5 mg of mercury per bulb, with the eco-friendly bulbs containing as little as 1 mg. Why are we even talking about mercury? Well, if you didn't know, it is poisonous. That's why we don't really use those thermometers anymore with the mercury in them, because if it breaks and comes in contact with your skin, you could um... die.

Okay, so since mercury is poisonous and CFLs contain mercury, these spiraled bulbs (can we call them bulbs? It seems unfair) need to be handled and disposed of with care. For example, if a CFL breaks you should open windows in the room immediately to air out the mercurial vapor and carefully put the broken pieces in a jar, sealing it tightly (mercury can leech from a plastic bag). If your CFL stops working, you shouldn't throw it away with your trash (the mercury may be released and contribute to air and water pollution) but recycle them.

Recycle them, okay. But how?

CFLs fall into the WEEE recycling scheme (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment Directive) and the higher price that you pay for a CFL already includes the cost of recycling it. Manufacturers and importers have an obligation to recycle these guys, so you better get them back to where they came from. In the US, you can bring them to most Home Depot locations.

Well that kind of seems like a lot of work and I don't really like the idea of introducing mercury into my home or the environment. Plus, they don't fit in a lot of current lighting fixtures and they don't work well in low temperatures. So I'll stick with my sexy bulbs please. 

Oh wait - I don't have a choice??

In 2008, the European Union approved regulations to start phasing out incandescent bulbs by end of 2012. Australia, Canada, and the United States have started planning a ban on most current incandescent bulbs. It looks like slowly but surely, the world will be getting rid of our bulbs and replacing them with spirals.

With the mercury you'll be obligated to bring into your home, please make sure to get your old and broken CFLs to a proper recycling center where they can be disposed of safely and their glass recycled. It's the only way that we can prevent doing harm to the environment - and ourselves - while cutting back on our energy use. CFLs do NOT belong in the trash, they are hazardous waste! But you will see a reduction in your energy bill, and using less energy is nothing to sneeze at.

Old vs. New
If you have any tips or experiences to share, please comment! :-)

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