What happens when CFLs leave you in the dark?

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By Harriet Blake
Green Right Now

OK, so you’ve done the environmentally correct thing and replaced most of your incandescent bulbs with CFLs (Compact Fluorescent Lightbulbs).

CFLs save up to 75 percent of the energy used by incandescent bulbs.

CFLs use less electricity and as a result, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In an average home, lighting accounts for about a fifth of the electric bill. Because CFLs use about 75 percent less electricity than incandescent light bulbs — and last about 10 times longer, it just makes sense to switch.

If every home in the United States replaced just one incandescent light bulb with a CFL, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), enough energy would be saved to light more than 3 million homes for a year. At the same time, this action would cut back greenhouse gas emissions equal to that of about 800,000 cars annually.

But despite their longevity, CFLs eventually do burn out.

And they cannot be tossed in the garbage and added to the landfill because of that pesky small amount of mercury they contain. This mercury, about 4-5 milligrams – just enough to cover a ballpoint pen tip, is sealed within the glass tubing. It is an essential part of CFLs, part of what makes them efficient, explains EPA spokesperson Cathy Milburn, and none of this mercury is released when the bulbs are intact and in use.

But, it wouldn’t be safe to let it leach out into the landfill. So those burned out CFLs piling up in a bag in your laundry room must be recycled.

Look first for local options. Home Depot appears to be leading the way on this front. Beginning in June 2008, Home Depot introduced a free in-store CFL recycling program at all of its stores. Customers bring their spent CFL bulbs to the return desk where they are then handled by an environmental management company. The company packages the bulbs, transports and recycles them.

“The CFL recycling program,” says senior vice president Ron Jarvis, “…empowers customers to make a difference in their own homes and have less of an impact on the environment.”

IKEA, the Swedish-based furniture and accessories store, also offers a Free Take Back recycling program that includes putting a bin for recyclables, including CFLs, in every store.

EPA is working with CFL manufacturers to widen recycling opportunities. Check out www.earth911.com to locate community recycling centers.

The Lighting Research Center, part of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, is a non-profit group that studies the effective use of lighting and its environmental impact. LRC also urges the public to refrain from disposing of CFLs with the household garbage and to instead take advantage of local recycling programs, says Mary Cimo, manager of research communications at the LRC.

The LRC also has a list of tips for consumers looking to purchase a CFLs.

Makers of CFLs have not overly helpful in making disposal suggestions. General Electric, for instance, simply says “And at the end of its life, a CFL bulb is fully recyclable and most cities, counties, and states make this fairly easy to do.” Similarly, Philips says to “look to your community for household hazardous waste recycling programs.” The manufacturer adds that consumers should always seal used bulbs in a plastic bag when dropping them off. Philips notes that more and more retailers may offer recycling, now that the demand for CFLs is increasing.

But as CFL demand increases, a new generation of efficient bulbs awaits – LED (light-emitting diodes) light bulbs. How will we deal with them? In another story…..

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