Gallery: IS IT GREEN?: The Compact Fluorescent Light


Shortly after Al Gore debuted An Inconvenient Truth the general public started giving a damn about climate change — at least superficially. And in a massive wave of effort to show off our new enviro-consciousness, every apartment, townhouse and megamansion from Norway to New Zealand swapped their incandescent light bulbs for more energy efficient CFLs, or compact fluorescent lamps. Watt for watt, there’s no question whether or not CFLs save energy as compared to their predecessors. But with the concerns of toxic mercury and the recent developments in LED technology, CFLs may not be the smartest choice for long-term sustainability. Read on for our in-depth report!

First, the case for CFLs: Compact fluorescent light bulbs use around 75% less energy and last 10 times as long as incandescent bulbs. The fact that CFLs can last up to ten times longer is a huge leap in the reduction of packaging and shipping. These benefits have led plenty of countries including Australia and Ireland to ban incandescents altogether. Retailers around the world have jumped on board, but when places like Wal-Mart started hocking CFLs like candy before Halloween they didn’t warn customers about mercury poisoning.

Mercury from energy production and broken CFL bulbs seeps into soil and water and usually ends up in the bodies of fish. Animals or people who then eat those fish take on their toxicity, which can cause severe disabilities from stunted neurological development. It has also been speculated that high mercury rates can cause cancer, though we’ll need a few more years of increasing exposure to know for sure.

For these reasons many governments and retailers are offing CFL recycling programs that safely handle the mercury instead of letting it build up in landfills. But just because recycling systems are in place doesn’t mean people use them. Most of our dumps are filled with recyclable or reusable items in the first place. I find it very unlikely that a person who throws away an empty water bottle will suddenly decide to drive to Home Depot to recycle an old CFL. People are lazy — and thats something you can count on!

Aside from the problems associated with mercury and recycling it seems as if the push for CFLs came at a time when we needed a quick fix–not a long term solution. The US Government continues to mandate ethanol fuel production, despite the fact that most environmentalists and scientists agree its not going to solve our climate problem. Like ethanol, CFLs are a welcomed step in the right direction. But before throwing everyone on the bandwagon it’s important to assess the potential harm and keep an eye on more effective emerging technologies.

In this case, there are at least a few more efficient, mercury-free lighting alternatives slowly creeping into the market. OLEDs (organic light emitting diodes), for example, use a fraction of the energy that CFLs do, are more flexible in application, less prone to breaking, and mercury-free. Young designers, scientists and engineers are regularly coming up with better ways to light our lives and they need all the support they can get. Afterall, our planet is on the line.

Is It Green?

Definitely. A CFL will beat an incandescent bulb any day of the week. But we can’t make this a competition between the CFL and its predecessors. The competition must move forward. There are more efficient solutions available. And we do have the technology AND responsibility to topple the CFL with a light that is more energy efficient, non-toxic, and easier to recycle. You may have won the battle, CFL; but you will not win the war!


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  1. manicmechanic October 20, 2013 at 11:57 pm

    How much energy is used in recycling cfls? Remember Recycling uses energy, recycling is just 1 step above the landfill. Re-purposing is the very best way, although it is only possible with some items. Fabricators often collect and re-purpose metal for building. Just something to remember. i agree reycling can be a great thing, however it is not a solution for everything. Often just a word that gives us that \\\”Warm fuzzy feeling\\\” that all is well. — Mike Lieber aka Manic Mechanic

  2. ginchinchili November 16, 2011 at 12:08 am

    Rob: I had posted a response to you in which I told you about another lighting technology, ESL, but for some reason it didn’t show up. I also told you about a website, but I forgot to include the web address, thus, the post above.

    I’ll try an abbreviated version of the post that disappeared. Just wanted to tell you about another lighting technology called ESL (electron stimulated luminescence) made by a company called Vu1. They just penned a deal with Lowes and their bulbs will be showing up on store shelves sometime in February. Vu1’s ESL bulbs are highly energy efficient; they contain no mercury or any other toxic materials; they have a light quality that is virtually indistinguishable from incandescent light; they have the highest power factor among all the new lighting technologies (>.99), which adds to their energy efficiency; they are fully dimmable; and they are a lot cheaper than LEDs.

    Right now they’re only producing an R30, for recessed or canned lighting. In a few months they’re supposed to come out with and A19, which is the common household lamp bulb. They have other bulbs in the works as well.

    Anyway, the link in my last post is to a cool site that tells all about ESL lighting technology:

  3. ginchinchili November 15, 2011 at 11:45 pm

    Oops! Sorry Rob. I forgot to include that web address:

  4. ginchinchili November 15, 2011 at 11:44 pm

    Ron: I mentioned this in an earlier post, there is new lighting being produced by a company called Vu1. The technology is called ESL (electron stimulated luminescence). It’s highly energy efficient; produces a light virtually indistinguishable from incandescent bulbs; is fully dimmable; contains no mercury, or any other materials toxic to humans or the environment; has the highest power factor among all new lighting technology (>.99) and is a lot cheaper than LEDs.

    Vu1 just recently signed a contract with Lowes to carry their light bulbs. They should start showing up on store shelves sometime in February. Right now they only offer one type of bulb, an R30 reflector bulb used primarily for recessed or canned lighting. In a few months they are coming out with an A19, the common household lamp bulb. Very cool.

    A couple of guys were so enthralled with the technology they decided to build a website focusing on ESL technology and other “green” energy-saving issues. Check it out. (And I’m not one of those two enthralled guys, though I am no less enthralled with ESL. But I can’t build websites :O(

  5. RobJohannesburg November 15, 2011 at 4:29 pm

    Wow I didn’t even know CFLs contained mercury. Which, I guess, was kind of the point of your article. But still, I don’t know if LEDs have reached the point where they are widely available or relatively cheap. Until those two things are met, I feel that CFLs are still a pretty good option, despite the mercury issues. And I’m not being callous; I bet there are places and way to recycle them so they don’t leech into soil and water.

  6. energy_saver85 June 27, 2011 at 10:17 pm

    CFLs are safe for the environment if we take the extra step and recycle them. Why wouln’t anyone want to switch to CFLs? It’s just common sense

  7. ginchinchili November 15, 2010 at 12:32 pm

    I’m afraid LEDs have their own problems with toxicity. They contain small amounts of arsenic. Personally, I’m looking forward to the new ESL bulbs being produced by a company called Vu1. They are energy efficient, have a higher power factor than either LEDs or CFLs, and contain no toxic materials. None. They are also cheaper than LEDs. They are expected to be on the market in early 2011.

  8. greentaffy October 12, 2010 at 1:17 pm

    I have decided to replace both incandescent AND cfl bulbs with the Halogen variety wherever possible as I understand they do not contain mercury. The marketing of cfl bulbs has carefully disguised the fact of the mercury content. Even the packaging does not make it clear that you have to be much more careful in their disposal. I know that Ikea has stopped selling incandescent bulbs, but are they still selling cfl bulbs? If so, now that the mercury has become an issue, will they change these bulbs for the Halogen variety and a cost which is favourable to the consumer?

  9. LIVE LAMP is a Plant-St... July 9, 2010 at 3:10 pm

    […] alive by an energy-efficient CFLgrow lamp that attaches within the orb, these epiphytic plants survive with no dirt – just UV, […]

  10. Ronnie February 28, 2010 at 4:12 pm

    The retail store where I work is now using CFL bulbs. The harsh light they produce is causing eye strain for
    me. I plan to buy a huge supply of incandescent bulbs for my home while they are still available in order to
    protect my vision.

  11. December 11, 2009 at 11:09 am

    As it turns out climate change is not the reason most people or businesses switch to CFL. The vast majority of our customers have made the switch because it saves their household or business money on energy. The side effects of saving money on energy are great, reducing coal burning necessity and polluting the air and water. We also offer inexpensive Veolia CFL and LED mercury recycling kits. They let you box up your spent bulbs and FedEx will come pick up the postage prepaid boxes from your house or building to have them safely disposed of. Please check it out at

  12. Optimus_Prime October 2, 2009 at 4:15 pm

    AngerOfTheNorth Says
    ” And who told you that most energy in Washington, New York etc was emission free? It’s not. Not even close. So the idea of just carrying on regardless and letting people use energy inefficient, polluting technologies is ridiculous.”

    I don’t care about New York but check this out doubter

    Yes: the state of Washington and Brazil both produce most of their electricity via hydroelectric power.

    In 2004, Washington produced 70 percent of its power via hydroelectricity, although this share is down from nearly 86 percent in 1990. The biggest interim spike was in natural gas, but coal and nuclear also increased their shares. Here are the shifts over time:

    85.7% (1990)
    80.7% (1995)
    74.2% (2000)
    70.1% (2004)

    7.2% (1990)
    5.8% (1995)
    8.7% (2000)
    10.2% (2004)

    5.6% (1990)
    6.8% (1995)
    8.0% (2000)
    8.8% (2004)

    Natural Gas:
    0.3% (1990)
    4.8% (1995)
    7.1% (2000)
    8.3% (2004)

    Other Renewables:
    1.1% (1990)
    1.2% (1995)
    1.4% (2000)
    2.3% (2004)

    Although it has lost hydroelectric shares, “Washington’s hydroelectric power industry is the largest in the Nation,” according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy, “and generates more power each year than any other state’s entire renewable energies program.” Take a look also at this interesting but outdated U.S. Geological Survey site about hydroelectric power.

  13. David.Cuthill September 3, 2009 at 9:16 am

    CFLs are not as energy efficient as all that!
    Here are my 10+ points that show CFLs are not as Green as people think.
    CFLs only save energy when you didn’t need to heat the room in the first place. i.e. if the heat is going to actual waste.
    In other words – If it is cold weather, so what if the incandescent bulbs heat the room as well as light it?
    If the room is 1Degree warmer because of the hot incandescent -surely that makes the room thermostat switch the central-heating off earlier in the heating on/off cycle therefore saving that power.
    2) CFLs only last longer under steady-state. If they are being switched off-and-on all the time the lifetime is less.
    3) CFLs take a while to warm-up. The light efficiency is lower for 5 minutes or so after switch-on. So you need more of them if you want to illuminate a space.
    4) CFLs are less power-balanced in the warm-up phase. It’s called Power-Factor displacement. The pure A/C mains voltage has less heating effect (0.707 of the equivalent D/C). But on switch-on of a CFL the resultant heating effect of an unbalanced CFL is higher before it’s warmed-up. That means “more coal in the furnace” to provide the same light during CFL warm-up.
    5) An incandescent is made of lightweight metal and glass. Compared to a CFL It has a lower manufacturing Cfootprint per bulb, and it costs money less to make. It is also 99% recyclable.
    6)However a CFL is Fluoro-coated glass, Plastics, Electronic components, mercury and metal. It is hazardous waste. Much more expensive to recycle.
    7) CFLs can cause electronic noise pollution.
    8) CFLs can cause eye strain and other medical problems like epilepsy because of the flickering.
    9) Using an electronic dimmer on an incandescent can dim it and save power down to light output and power consumption levels of some CFLs. But CFLs can’t be dimmed nearly so easily.
    10) CFLs are 10x more expensive to buy. That means the poor citizens have to spend more of their time working harder and burning more resource to afford the CFL.
    11)We said above that CFLs are only efficient when under steady state. That means they are an On-All-The-Time product. Leaving the light on all the time isn’t ‘Green’ Either.
    12) CFLs if broken are a mercury hazard to health.
    13) CFLs are not full-spectrum of light and this can cause eye strain and fatigue – as well as the point that you might need an Incandescent bulb too if you want to read.

    Are you having second thoughts yet?
    Now LEDs that’s a different matter. LEDs are the way forward.

  14. loczip September 1, 2009 at 12:45 pm

    i am an interior designer looking for great LED lighting- any real wonders in the marketplace you love to recommend?

  15. stephen_francis August 25, 2009 at 3:17 pm

    Blatant piece of self-promotion here: I work for a company that produces LED lights — we are called LED Waves. Whilst it is true that OLEDs are just coming to market, we have a full range of replacement bulbs that use regular LEDs, with better power usage and longer life than CFLs — and no mercury or other nasties. Prices are still high, but the bulbs pay for themselves over time with reduced electrictiy consumption and fewer replacements. Check us out at

  16. daveundis August 2, 2009 at 10:10 am

    Send your light bulbs to Washington!

    Improper disposal of compact fluorescent light bulbs is very dangerous to your family and to the environment. In some states, it is illegal to put these light bulbs in your trash.

    It’s easy to dispose of compact fluorescent light bulbs properly. Just send them to your Senator or Congressman in Washington. Or send them to the EPA.

    You can find your Senator’s mailing address here:

    You can find your Congressman’s mailing address here:

    Or send your used light bulbs to EPA headquarters in Washington:
    Environmental Protection Agency
    Ariel Rios Building
    1200 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
    Washington, DC 20460

    Isn’t your family’s health worth the small postage cost? Don’t you want to help save the planet from this environmental nightmare? You’ll sleep better at night knowing your deadly mercury-containing light bulbs are with the experts in our nation’s capital. Send your light bulbs to Washington!

    For more information, check out our web site at

  17. Janet August 1, 2009 at 1:31 pm

    I have had consistently poor performance from CFI’s. I was perfectly willing to pay the higher price for them to “save the environment and save energy,” however about 30% of the CFI’s I’ve purchased did not last 1 year. CFI’s do not seem to have the advantages I thought they would.

  18. lighthouse10 August 1, 2009 at 9:37 am


    Re lifecycle usage

    RE CFls, it’s not just the energy and emissions in manufacture, but also in their shipping from China using bunker oil, the shipping back of parts and mercury for use in new CFLs, and any CFL recycling processing energy and emissions.
    However, that has to be balanced against the longer lifespans df CFLs, although that itself is under doubt – and manufacturers do not guarantee the advertised lifespan.
    Energy Star USA have only a 2 year warranty (guarantee) requirement

  19. seamusdubh July 31, 2009 at 10:12 pm

    On a different tangent.

    What is the imbibed energy in producing said bulbs?

    What I’m asking, is how much energy does it take to produce each type of bulb (incandescent, cfl, led). And how does that compare to the stated savings/energy usage of each.

  20. Pavlina July 31, 2009 at 9:30 pm

    I wonder how much mercury I was exposed to when i was a kid and would break open the thermometers to play with the cool, silvery liquid? I am SOOOOOO not worried about the tiny bit in a CFL. I’ve been using these for years, and have yet to break one BTW.

  21. BeAware July 31, 2009 at 2:32 pm

    CFLs contain vaporized Mercury that will spread through the air and into your lungs if a bulb breaks near you. The EPA set a Reference Concentration of 300 nanograms of vaporized Mercury as a toxic exposure limit. The State of Maine DEP did a study to find out how much Mercury actually comes out of one bulb- over 50,000 nanograms! The EPA website gives directions as to What To Do if a Compact Fluorescent Bulb Breaks. No. 1 – Leave. Don’t breathe the vapors, and take the children and the pets with you on the way out. Turn off the A/C or heater and open the windows to ventilate the space.
    You can’t throw these bulbs away, they may break in your trash can. You have to take them to Toxic Disposal or to Home Depot or IKEA where a recycling company packages them up carefully and ships them to a recycling plant where they suck the Mercury out of the bulbs so it won’t go into the atmosphere.
    Please be careful when removing these bulbs by placing something soft under them to catch them if they fall. And keep them away from children. This goes for all fluorescent bulbs, tubes, full spectrum lighting.
    Also, CFLs emit a high electromagnetic field from the ballast that is not healthy to be near. It can cause eye strain headaches, nervousness and seizures in sensitive people.
    LED bulbs are the answer. They contain no Mercury or any other toxic substances, use HALF the electricity of a CFL, and last from 10 to 20 years if they are on 24/7. Your grandkids will be changing out these bulbs.

  22. YB July 30, 2009 at 5:42 pm

    Lighthouse 10 is a troll – don’t feed the fringe, you’re wasting time on a dinosaur….

  23. AngerOfTheNorth July 30, 2009 at 9:20 am

    Lighthouse10 – are you for real?

    “Since when does America need to save on electricity?” Ummm… Since most of that energy came from fossil fuels, which is causing global warming, higher levels of pollution, acid rain, more acidic oceans, etc etc. Maybe?

    And who told you that most energy in Washington, New York etc was emission free? It’s not. Not even close. So the idea of just carrying on regardless and letting people use energy inefficient, polluting technologies is ridiculous.

    I can tell that you don’t really like change. It probably scares you. But it’s coming, so please just get used to it.

  24. lighthouse10 July 30, 2009 at 7:14 am

    About : CFL mercury versus Coal Power mercury, in the comments above

    CFL mercury is a much bigger problem.


    Coal power mercury was only ever a problem where untreated coal was used, and dominated

    But emissions can now easily be treated, with new injection and photochemical techniques as well as so-called scrubbers.

    Not only that, emissions will drastically fall in the next few years, as EPA themselves maintain:
    2005 decision, 90% power station mercury emission reduction by 2018, (phase 1 = 21% reduction by 2010, phase 2 = 69% further reduction by 2018) , confirmed by new administrator Lisa Jackson.

    In a nutshell:
    1. We know where the ever decreasing local coal power stations chimneys are and we can treat their emissions with ever increasing efficiency at lower costs.
    2. Compare that with billions of scattered broken lights on dump sites, when we do not know where the broken lights will be, and so we can’t do anything about them.

    (deposit-refund or free collection schemes would be a good idea, but have not prevented most CFLs in Europe being thrown away with other household waste)

  25. lighthouse10 July 29, 2009 at 6:20 pm

    I think it’s possible to both look after the environment and allow free choice….

    Americans choose to buy ordinary light bulbs around 9 times out of 10.
    Banning what Americans want gives the supposed savings – no point in banning an impopular product!

    If new LED lights -or improved CFLs- are good,
    people will buy them – no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (little point).
    If they are not good, people will not buy them – no need to ban ordinary light bulbs (no point).
    The arrival of the transistor didn’t mean that more energy using radio tubes had to be banned… they were bought less anyway.

    All lights have their advantages
    The ordinary simple light bulb has for many people a pleasing appearance, it responds quickly with bright broad spectrum light, is easy to use with dimmers and other equipment, can come in small sizes, and has safely been used for over 100 years.

    100 W+ equivalent brightness is a particular issue – difficult and expensive with both fluorescents and LEDS – yet such incandescent bulbs are first in line for banning 2012!

    Since when does America need to save on electricity?
    There is no energy shortage, there are plenty of local energy sources, Middle East oil is not used for electricity generation.
    Consumers – not politicians – pay for the energy used.
    Certainly it is good to let people know how they can save energy and money – but why force them to do it?

    OK: Does a light bulb give out any gases?
    Power stations might not either:
    In Washington state practically all electricity is emission-free, while around half of it is in states like New York and California.
    Why should emission-free Seattle, New York and Los Angeles households be denied the use of lighting they obviously want to use?
    Low emission households will increase everywhere, since emissions will be reduced anyway through the planned use of coal/gas processing technology or energy substitution.

    Also, the savings amounts can be questioned for many reasons:
    For a referenced list of reasons against light bulb bans, see onwards

    Even if a reduction in use was needed, then taxation to reduce consumption would make more sense since government can use the income to reduce emissions (home insulation schemes, renewable projects etc) more than any remaining product use causes such problems.
    People can still buy what they want, unlike with bans.
    However taxation on electrical appliances is in principle wrong for similar reasons to bans (for example, emission-free households are hit too).

  26. beezorphlegmon July 29, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    letters 3437 makes a good point… would you rather have a small amount of mercury in a pile on the floor where it’s easily cleaned up, or a lot of mercury off-gassed into the air where you breathe it in?

    Also, why all the hype all of a sudden? The same amount of mercury exists in ALL Fluorescent lighting. At work, at home, in school, on streets, in the car – all non-incandescent lights (except the rare LEDs) have small amounts of mercury in them. And are people freaking out and dying? no.

    OLEDs and other technologies are great, but they’re a long way off. For the time being, I wish people would stop bashing CFLs… they’re so much better than their predecessors in every way… even in mercury!

  27. letters3437 July 29, 2009 at 2:50 pm

    Another fact worth mentioning. Mercury is a byproduct of coal electricity production. Many (most) states predominately use coal for electricity production. As a result during the lifetime of a bulb an incandescent creates more mercury than a CFL through its higher use of electricity.

  28. sucasa July 29, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    I’ve stopped using CFLs in any table lamps. One broken CFL (and subsequent mercury exposure) on our nightstand/bed decided that for good.
    But they are great for any fixtures where that are out of reach and unlikely to fall.

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