The light bulb dilemma: Save energy or save the planet?


Sure, replacing those 60-watt incandescent light bulbs with lower-wattage compact fluorescent alternatives cuts energy use. But are they harming the environment in the process?

CFLs: Earth's friend or foe?

CFLs: Friend or foe?

That’s the question one insightful Pennsylvania resident posed to the Environmental Protection Agency recently. The spiral-shaped CFLs contain the toxic chemical mercury, which makes them dangerous to land, water and animals if not disposed of properly. “Should we be more concerned with energy saving or mercury hazards?” the woman asked.

CFLs contain a trace amount of mercury — five milligrams — which would fit on the tip of a ballpoint pen, said Dan Gallo, EPA’s electronics recycling specialist, who responded to the question. It would take 100 bulbs to equal the amount of mercury contained in one of the old thermometers, Gallo said.

The benefits of lower energy consumption — CFLs use 75 percent less electricity than traditional bulbs — outweigh the environmental disadvantages, Gallo said.

Still, safely disposing of the bulbs is important — especially as federal agencies and other energy-conscious businesses and consumers begin buying more CFLs to reduce their electricity use. Several national retailers accept the bulbs for recycling, including Ace Hardware, IKEA and Home Depot. Most local landfills also accept the bulbs as part of their hazardous waste disposal programs.

In a pinch, EPA says you can place the fluorescent light bulb in two plastic bags and seal it before putting it into the outside trash. Just don’t tell the plastic bag recycling advocates.


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