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!

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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!