Photo by Paul Keller
What if everyone were to switch to CFLs today?
Well, according to a new report by the Worldwatch Institute, our global lighting demand could be cut by 40%. Even though that is a whole lot of electricity not being used, CFLs aren’t necessarily the earth’s BFF. From the report:
Replacing all the inefficient incandescent lightbulbs with CFLs in the United States alone could prevent 158 million tons of CO2emissions according to one lighting company, the equivalent of taking more than 30 million cars off the road.12 Sub¬stituting CFLs under a global scenario that minimizes costs would reduce lighting energy demand by nearly 40 percent and save 900 million tons of CO2 a year by 2030, with a cumulative savings by then totaling 16.6 billion tons-more than twice the carbon dioxide released in the United States in 2006.13
Those are some really tempting numbers. Just look at how much could be saved in about 21 years….
Ok, so they cut lighting demand drastically and cut greenhouse gas emissions. But what about the end-of-life problems they cause? CFLs contain mercury. One bulb doesn't present much of a problem, nor does a lot of bulbs if properly recycled. But if we used CFLs exclusively...well, then there's a problem. There would need to be an equally aggressive campaign to recycle the bulbs as there would be to get people to switch. Some great programs have already started, but it'd have to become universal knowledge.
The report addresses the concern about mercury, putting a give-take spin on it:
Modern CFLs also contain about 4 milli grams of mercury, a dangerous urotoxin. This is less than 1 percent as much mercury as found in old thermometers, but it still means broken bulbs should be treated with care and discarded bulbs should be recycled instead of thrown out. And for consumers who rely on coal-fired electricity, one of the largest sources of mercury emissions, the increased energy efficiency of these bulbs means that over its lifetime a CFL-even if it is broken or thrown away-will release significantly less mercury into the environment than an incandescent bulb would.
397 million CFL bulbs were sold in the US in 2007. The European Union has banned incandescent bulbs altogether. Clearly there are a lot of people switching over to energy efficient options. But that also means a whole lot of bulbs out there that contain mercury, a huge percentage of which likely won't be properly disposed of.
Personally, I decided a long time ago to only replace my incandescent bulbs with CFLs as they burn out. But that means that in the last 5 years, I haven’t put a single CFL in my house. That’s because I use lighting only when I need it, and so bulbs last a reeeeaallly long time. And when a bulb has burned out, I've snagged another from a rarely used lamp and replaced it with that.
The best way to cut down on the global lighting demand is to cut down on the demand for global lighting first, and secondly use energy efficient bulbs that are properly disposed of at end-of-life.
There are lighting options better than CFLs being developed and implemented right now, including LEDs (currently quite pricey) and OLEDs (currently not exactly readily available). So a big rush to the warehouse store to grab CFLs isn’t necessarily the best way to go to reduce our energy consumption and curb green house gasses.
More on CFLs:
Ask TreeHugger: Is Mercury from a Broken CFL Dangerous?
Mercury and CFL's: Stop Whining and Recycle
CFL Bulbs or Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: Energy Savings, Mercury, Recycling and More
Compact Fluorescent Bulb Recycling Now Available at US Home Depot Stores