[Home Page]


Compact Fluorescent  Light Bulbs: maybe not as good as they sound.

Jacob Schor ND FABNO

January 13, 2009


Back in December, when each day was getting shorter and each night longer, I dragged a stepladder around our house and replaced all the burnt out light bulbs.

When we moved into our house eight years ago, we replaced many of the incandescent light bulbs with those fancy, low energy, long lasting, compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs).    Those bulbs lasted a long time but now they are burning out and this is a problem.  Fluorescent bulbs contain mercury.  Mercury is a dangerous poison and should not be tossed into the garbage.  CFLs should be recycled so the mercury doesn’t escape into the environment.  The problem is, there is no easy way to recycle them.

Consumer Reports tells me that regular incandescent bulbs last about 1,000 hours while the CFLs they tested were still going strong at 3,000 hours when their review article went to print. [1]  Other reports tell me they can last 10,000 hours.  Each CFL contains about 5 milligrams of mercury.  Mercury is a neurotoxin.  There is already far too much mercury in our environment and inside our bodies.  This may not sound like much; those old fashioned mercury thermometers contained about 100 times this much.  Yet mercury thermometers aren’t sold anymore for just this reason.  The mercury contained in a single CFL bulb, “ is enough to contaminate up to 6,000 gallons of water beyond safe drinking levels.” [2]  The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) has a suggested procedure of what to do if you break one of these CFLs at home.  It is pasted at the end of this letter. These bulbs are not disposable.  They are hazardous waste.  Only a very few CFLs are recycled.  In 2004, according the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers,  70.8% of the mercury-lamps used by business and 98% of the lamps used in homes are not being recycled.” [2]  This organization has a website map listing companies that recycle these bulbs.  They don’t show any recyclers in Colorado. http://www.almr.org/map2.html



 The EPA website tells me that “Nationwide, over 670 million mercury-containing bulbs are discarded each year.”   Let me try and do the math:  670,000,000 bulbs x .005 g Hg/bulb = 3,350,000 grams of mercury or 3,350 kilograms mercury dumped into landfills or incinerated each year.  The New York Times reported in June that although Wal-Mart announced in October 2006 that it wanted to sell 100 million compact fluorescents by the end of 2007, they actually sold 193 million bulbs. [4] Last June Home Depot announced they would establish a national CFL recycling program in all of their stores.  A search of their website today turns up no information about their program.  It might exist but no one knows about it

These bulbs are still supposed to be an improvement.  Coal plants that generate electricity also release mercury and the reduction in electricity consumed by these bulbs is supposed to leave us ahead.

Someone has kindly gone through figuring this out and posted the calculations on a website called www.EnergyRace.com.

In 2004, all the power plants in the U.S. together generated 3.9 billion megawatts of electricity and in the process released 106,041 pound of mercury or 26,950 pounds per kilowatt hour. Assuming CFLs are 25 watts and are used for 6,000 hours.  25 watts x 6000 hours times 150 million CFLs = 22,500,000 megawatt hours of electricity which will release 606 pounds of mercury to generate.


Those 150 million CFLs contain 1,653 pounds of mercury.  Add to that the 606 pounds of mercury released in generating the electricity and those CFLs will eventually contribute 2,259 pounds of total mercury.


Incandescent bulbs, regular old light bulbs do not contain mercury so this calculation is simple.  150 million incandescent 100 watt bulbs used for 6000 hours will burn 90,000,000 megawatt hours of electricity.   To generate that much electricity will emit 2,425 pounds of mercury.

If these calculations are right, switching to 150,000,000 CFLs will reduce the mercury released into the environment by 165 pounds or 7% assuming not a single CFL is recycled.  

That’s a surprisingly unimpressive and the argument that using CFLs reduces mercury pollution, though true is not compelling.  Omitted from this calculation is any concern about energy expenditures for transporting and recycling the spent bulbs.  Or of green house gas emissions.

Of course these equations can be shifted.  If all CFLs were recycled, mercury release would be reduced to only 606 pounds.  That would be a 75% reduction. 

Of course the other variable is how we generate electricity.  Clean burning power plants or other forms of electric generation could reduce mercury release.  But for now, this is about where it all stands.

These fancy bulbs need to be recycled.  In the long run of course we also need cleaner methods to generate electricity. 

I still have my burnt out bulbs.  I’m patient and am going save them until I do find a way to recycle them.

UPDATE   May 2009

Since writing this newsletter quite a number of people have sent me information on recyling these bulbs .  It appears that the easiest way to recycle these bulbs is through Home Depot.


(click on the CFL Recycling link)




How to clean up a fluorescent bulb:

Before cleanup: Vent the room

1. Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.

2. Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.

Cleanup steps for hard surfaces

3. Carefully scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.

4. Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.

5. Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes and place them in the glass jar or plastic bag.

6. Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

Cleanup steps for carpeting or rug

3. Carefully pick up glass fragments and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.

4. Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.

5. If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken.

6. Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag.

Disposal of cleanup materials

7. Immediately place all cleanup materials outside the building in a trash container or outdoor protected area for the next normal trash.

8. Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing cleanup materials.

9. Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states prohibit such trash disposal and require that broken and unbroken lamps be taken to a recycling center.

Future cleaning of carpeting or rug

10. For at least the next few times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window prior to vacuuming.

11. Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed.



Consumer Reports.  Lighting New twists in savings. October 2007 pg 28-29


Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers

A non-profit organization representing members of the recycling industry.

November, 2004  NATIONAL MERCURY-LAMP RECYCLING RATE  and  Availability of Lamp Recycling Services in the U.S.

The New York Times June 24, 2008

Home Depot Offers Recycling for Compact Fluorescent Bulbs