Compact Fluorescent Lamps and the Environment

Using compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) is an effective way to reduce energy consumption and prevent greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to global climate change.

CFLs use up to 75 percent less energy than traditional incandescent light bulbs, last up to ten times longer and can save about $30 or more in electricity costs over each bulb’s lifetime.

The use of less electricity, in turn, puts less demand on power plants, thus reducing the amount of greenhouse gases, mercury, and other pollutants released into the air. Each CFL can prevent more than 450 pounds of emissions from a power plant over its operating life.

Using CFLs can also help to reduce cooling costs in your home. They emit about 75 percent less heat than traditional bulbs. About 90 percent of the energy emitted by incandescent bulbs is heat, compared with the 30 percent released by CFLs.

If every American home replaced just one light bulb with a CFL, we would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year, reduce more than $600 million in annual energy costs, and prevent greenhouse gas emissions equivalent to that of more than 800,000 cars.

Where should I use CFLs?

CFLs are available in different shapes and sizes to fit in almost any fixture, both indoors and outdoors. It is best to install CFLs in fixtures that are used at least 15 minutes at a time or several hours per day. These fixtures are usually found in the following areas of your home:

  • family and living rooms
  • kitchen
  • dining room
  • bedroom (except children’s)
  • outdoors

How do I choose the right CFL?

CFLs perform best in open fixtures that allow airflow, such as table and floor lamps, wall sconces and outdoor fixtures. Special CFLs can also be used in fixtures connected to dimmers or three-way sockets.

Be sure to choose a CFL that offers a shade of white light that works best for you. Most CFLs provide warm or soft white light, but you can also choose a cooler color for task lighting. To choose the CFL with the right amount of light, find a CFL that is labeled as equivalent to the incandescent bulb you are replacing.

Energy Star qualified CFLs are required to meet safety and performance criteria. Purchasing an Energy Star qualified CFL will ensure you are purchasing a reliable product.

Some homeowners may also base their decision about which CFL to purchase on mercury content. Most CFLs contain between 2 milligrams and 10 milligrams of mercury, about the size of the tip of a pen. The Interstate Mercury Education and Reduction Clearinghouse (IMERC) maintains a database of the amount of mercury in products. Although the data are provided in ranges, this information can still be helpful when deciding which CFL to purchase. To find the mercury content for a product, go to the IMERC on-line database and choose “Advanced Search” from the menu on the left-hand side of the page. Then choose “lamps” from the right-side column. Then choose the type of lamp for which you are seeking information, scroll down about ½ way and click on “Search”.

How do I Dispose of Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs?

What should I do when a CFL burns out?

Though the amount of mercury in a CFL is relatively small, it is important to properly recycle used bulbs in order to recover the mercury contained in each one. Mercury is an essential component of CFLs and is what allows the bulb to be an efficient light source. No mercury is released when the bulbs are in use, and may only be potentially emitted if broken.

Do NOT throw CFLs away in your household garbage. This can lead to a release of mercury into the environment through breakage and leakage. It is recommended that consumers take advantage of available local recycling options for CFLs. The Agency is working with lamp manufacturers and major retailers to expand recycling and disposal options. Commonwealth Edison has set up free CFL recycling in its service areas. In addition, several private companies take CFLs from homeowners. Some have mail-in programs for a fee. Click one of the following links to find a CFL recycling option near you.

  • Commercial mail back programs (This does not constitute an endorsement of the listed companies.)
  • Home Depot stores offer free in-store CFL recycling.
  • There may be other collection options in your area. Visit the web site earth911.org for more recycling options.

Households and consumers can often recycle mercury-containing bulbs by taking them to local household hazardous waste collection programs, which are usually organized by counties or local solid waste authorities. Please visit the Illinois EPA Household Hazardous Waste webpage for more information and local collection dates.

What if I accidentally break a CFL in my home?

CFLs are made of glass and can break if dropped or roughly handled. Be careful when handling a bulb, and always screw and unscrew the bulb by its base (not the glass). Never forcefully twist a CFL into a light socket. In the event of breaking a CFL, you can clean it up through the following procedures:

  • Do not use a vacuum cleaner to clean up the breakage until the debris has been removed. This will spread the mercury vapor and dust throughout the area and could potentially contaminate the vacuum.
  • Keep people and pets away from the breakage area until the cleanup is complete.
  • Ventilate the area by opening windows, and leave the area for 15 minutes before returning to begin the cleanup. Mercury vapor levels will be lower by then.
  • For maximum protection and if you have them, wear rubber gloves to protect your hands from the sharp glass.
  • Carefully remove the larger pieces and place them in a secure closed container, preferably a glass container with a metal screw top lid and seal like a canning jar.40 A glass jar with a good seal works best to contain any mercury vapors inside. Other jars that can be made of glass and also work are pickle, peanut butter and applesauce jars. Not ideal but also a good choice for containing breakage is a heavy duty #2 plastic container with either a screw lid or push-on lid such as a joint compound bucket or certain kitty litter-type containers.
  • Next, begin collecting the smaller pieces and dust. You can use two stiff pieces of paper such as index cards or playing cards to scoop up pieces.
  • Pat the area with the sticky side of duct tape, packing tape or masking tape to pick up fine particles. Wipe the area with a wet wipe or damp paper towel to pick up even finer particles.
  • Put all waste and materials into the glass container, including all material used in the cleanup that may have been contaminated with mercury. Label the container as “broken lamp.”
  • Remove the container with the breakage and cleanup materials from your home. This is particularly important if you do not have a glass container.
  • Continue ventilating the room for several hours.
  • Wash your hands and face.
  • Take the glass container with to a facility that accepts household hazardous waste. If there is no permanent facility near your home, keep the glass container in a safe place until the next one day household hazardous waste collection occurs in your area. Do not take a broken CFL to a retail collection facility.
  • When a break happens on carpeting, homeowners may consider removing throw rugs or the area of carpet where the breakage occurred as a precaution, particularly if the rug is in an area frequented by infants, small children or pregnant women.
  • Finally, if the carpet is not removed, open the window to the room during the next several times you vacuum the carpet to provide good ventilation.

The next time you replace a lamp, consider putting a drop cloth on the floor so that any accidental breakage can be easily cleaned up. If consumers remain concerned regarding safety, they may consider not utilizing fluorescent lamps in situations where they could easily be broken. Consumers may also consider avoiding CFL usage in bedrooms or carpeted areas frequented by infants, small children, or pregnant women. Finally, consider not storing too many used/spent lamps before recycling as that may increase your chances of breakage.