In today's newspaper, I wrote about compact fluorescent light bulbs — CFLs.
For many, they're the benchmark of a greener lifestyle.
Others think they're ugly and they worry about the mercury inside.
As usual, I interviewed far more people and had far more information than I could include in the story.
I thought people might want a few more details about the mercury.
Energy Star, a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency program, says that the 5 mg contained in the average bulb would cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. By comparison, the agency says, older thermometers contain about 500 mg of mercury.
"These bulbs pose absolutely no risk to consumers when handled properly," says Department of Energy spokeswoman Chris Kielich. "In case there is a breakage, the risk to the consumer is still negligible."
Jeff Harris, vice president for programs at the Alliance to Save Energy, a national group that promotes energy efficiency as "the quickest, cheapest and cleanest way to extend the world's energy supplies," calls the mercury "a manageable issue."
“I don’t think it’s a cause to panic,” he says. He adds that many people don’t give the long tubes in regular fluorescent fixtures — people sometimes have them in their basements, workshops or garages — much thought at all. And Harris says those have more mercury than CFLs.
The point is to handle them with care, and if you do break one clean it up properly. (The EPA’s clean-up guidelines are here.)
When it comes to environmental concerns, lighting experts at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Insitute in Troy, N.Y., studied the issue last year and concluded that incandescents are responsible for more mercury entering the environment than CFLs. It’s because they use more energy, and many facilities that generate electricity release mercury.
“We’ll have less mercury in our environment overall if CFLs replaced incandescents,” says Russ Leslie, associate director of the Lighting Research Center at the institute. “Even assuming if all the mercury in the CFL ends up in the atmosphere, which it won’t if it’s properly handled.”
If you’re having trouble picking out the right color, I’m including a photo from Sylvania Osram that might help. The lighting company has been making screw-in CFLs since the 1980s.
Spokeswoman Stephanie J. Anderson says that if you’re trying to replicate your old incandescent bulbs, go for something in the 2700K to 3000K range. If you want something that looks more like the blueish light of mid-day, go to the higher range.
“It’s really a matter of personal taste,” she says. “Are you trying to mimic sunlight, or the old incandescent we’ve become familiar with?”
I thought — too late, alas — it might be both fun and helpful to get a group of friends together and all donate to a kitty so we could buy the whole range of bulbs. Then we could have a lighting party and turn them all on to see which ones each of us liked. That would have saved me some money, because I sure spent plenty experimenting to find which ones worked for me.
Here are a few more ideas on disposal:
Ikea stores have begun accepting CFLs.
Sylvania offers a 15-bulb recycling kit that costs about $15, and you can order it online from the company.
It's a kind of envelope specially designed so the bulbs can safely break inside — and they probably will. You put the bulbs inside, tape it shut and hand it back to the mail carrier, Anderson says.
The company recycles and reuses "every part of that lamp - glass, metal base and mercury itself," she says.
I pointed out that few people are going to have 15 bulbs to recycle at once, but perhaps community groups would be interested.
Better still, places that sell the bulbs could get the envelopes, collect the old ones and take care of the whole deal.
"We agree it's not a perfect solution," Anderson says. "We would ultimately like to see curbside."
And maybe that will happen. After all, the bulbs are supposed to last for years, so most of us have a bit of time before having to worry about it.
Meanwhile, here are some CFL links:
The government's Energy Star website has all kinds of information about the benefits of CFLs, what kind of fixtures and locations they work best in, a savings calculator and information about mercury and proper disposal.
PECO has an energy calculator, too.
This EPA site can help you find recycling options: