Are Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs Really Green?

Sesame Street broadcasts started nearly two decades after my elementary school years. So like many adults, I watched Sesame Street with my children and grandson. A favorite segment asked which “one of these things is not like the others?”

In this era of everything labeled green and sustainable, this critical thinking lesson should be used more often. Which one these things, for example, is not like the others: weatherizing and insulating homes, energy efficient appliances, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs)? Hint: it is the one the Environmental Protection Agency classifies as hazardous waste,

CFLs contain 2.5-5.0 milligrams of mercury, a known toxin that directly and cumulatively affects human health, water, air, soils, and wildlife. In Oregon and nationally, more than 95% of used household CFLs are discarded as household waste and nearly 100% of the CFLs disposed in garbage are broken and release mercury during collection, compaction, and delivery.

Households located in the three-county Portland (Oregon) Metro regional government jurisdiction are using an estimated five-to-six million bulbs and are storing millions more spent bulbs. Metro hopes to capture just 50,000 (2.5%) of the more than 2 million bulbs that will be collected and delivered to Metro landfills and garbage transfer stations in 2011. More than two-thirds of Metro’s 700,000 households must drive at least 20 miles to dispose spent bulbs at Metro’s two hazardous waste facilities.

Metro and other local governments seem unfazed by the escalating volume of mercury-containing CFLs. Metro’s sole strategy is to wait for the Oregon legislature to enact laws requiring CFL manufactures and distributors to fund CFL take-back and collection programs. This strategy persists despite similar product stewardship bills dying in Oregon legislative committees in 2009 and 2011. Even if CFL legislation becomes law in 2012, another six-to-ten million used CFL bulbs will be disposed in Metro household trash before the law is implemented

CFL promoters dismiss concerns about mercury released from millions of broken bulbs. The claim: CFL energy efficiencies reduce mercury added to the atmosphere by coal plant emissions. Unfortunately, no evidence exists that CFL and other energy efficiencies are offsetting coal-plant electricity production in the West. Coal-fired plants generate electricity to meet base not peak demand, and rarely operate at less than full capacity. CFL use is unlikely to reduce overall demand for electricity — particularly in the West — unless paired with an intervention such as a carbon tax designed to reduce both electric power consumption and production.

CFLs — unlike other electric energy efficiency choices such as weatherizing homes and using energy-saving appliances — add mercury to the environment unless properly collected and disposed as hazardous waste. Without a reduction in existing coal fired generation, 100% of all used CFLs must be captured and recycled to avoid increasing total mercury releases. Even if CFL use were offsetting coal-fired plant emissions containing mercury, adding mercury to the environment in residential neighborhoods and at urban waste transfer stations endangers the environment and human health.

CFLs use about 75% less electricity than incandescent bulbs and burn longer. (Lighting constitutes as much of 20% of household electric energy use.) After factoring in the purchase price for CFLs, household electricity bills can be reduced provided savings in monthly bills do not induce consumers to add new electricity uses. The full cost of CFL use cannot be determined until the costs of recycling CFLs are added.

Industries demanding high volumes of electricity are attracted to the stability afforded by utilities generating electricity from coal. It is no accident, for example, that Facebook is locating new high-energy-use Oregon facilities in Prineville, a small Central Oregon community served by Pacificorp. Pacificorp derives more than 50% of its electricity from coal plants.

Sesame Street philosopher Kermit the Frog often reminded us that “it’s not easy being green.” Convincing consumers to use a product that reduces their electric bills is easy, but using CFLs isn’t green or sustainable unless and until most used CFLs are disposed as hazardous waste.

Larry Tuttle, the founding director of the Center for Environmental Equity, has worked for more than two decades to protect the environment, human health, and communities from mineral mining degradation. He can be reached at


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