Waste Watchers: Do fluorescents pollute?
Can you please explain how replacing a regular light bulb with a compact fluorescent bulb is better for the environment when fluorescent bulbs contain mercury and regular bulbs do not?
Lisa in Eagle
Thanks for the great question, Lisa. I appreciate your healthy skepticism.
On the surface, it does not seem that a light bulb that contains mercury would be better for the environment than one containing no mercury. To make sense of it, we need to look at where mercury pollution in our environment comes from and how electricity is generated and, finally, compare regular (incandescent) and fluorescent bulbs. From this information, we will be able to see that fluorescent bulbs are better for the environment than regular bulbs.
Mercury is a naturally occurring element that is released into the environment through natural processes such as rainwater runoff and volcanic eruptions. We have no control over the mercury contamination in our environment that occurs naturally, but we can control the mercury that is released into the environment through human activities. The main source of environmental mercury related to human behavior is from the burning of fossil fuels, especially coal.
Large amounts of coal are being burned to generate the electricity we use in this country. In Colorado, roughly 70 percent of our electricity is generated from the burning of coal. As coal burns, mercury is released into the environment. Therefore, reducing the amount of energy we use results in smaller amounts of coal burned and also reduces the amount of mercury emissions released into our environment.
Compact fluorescent bulbs use about 25 percent less energy, last roughly 10 times longer and generate 75 percent less heat than regular bulbs. As a result, energy is saved lighting your home, energy and resources are saved by manufacturing one bulb versus 10 bulbs and energy is saved during summer when you are trying to cool your house. In fact, enough energy is saved switching from regular bulbs to fluorescent that even if the fluorescent bulbs were thrown away after use and the mercury escaped into the environment, more mercury would have been released from the coal-burning powerplant lighting regular light bulbs (www.energystar.gov/ia/partners/promotions/change_light/downloads/fact_sheet_mercury.pdf). That being said, please recycle your fluorescent bulbs. This will result in even less mercury entering our environment.
Note: Fluorescent bulbs may not be the right choice for your home and family, specifically, those with young children. Please review the Environmental Protection Agency’s fluorescent bulb cleanup guidance (www.epa.gov/cfl/cflcleanup.html) before installing them in your home.
Joseph Walls is hazardous-waste specialist at the Eagle County Household Hazardous Waste facility, located at the landfill in Wolcott. The facility is open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Saturday. Call 970-328-3468 or visit http://www.eaglecounty.us/recyclingwaste for information.
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