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Volume 15, Issue 50 ~ December 13 - December 19, 2007

Got an Environmental Question? Send it to: EARTH TALK, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881. Or submit your question at: Or e-mail us at:

From the Editors of E/The Environmental Magazine

Lighting Up a Slow Revolution

Fluorescent lights aren’t in every socket, yet.

Why aren’t compact fluorescent light bulbs taking over more quickly from incandescents, given their substantial energy-saving advantage? And what about recycling them when they ultimately burn out?

–Nancy Holmes, Seaside, Oreg.

Analysts at the nonprofit Earth Policy Institute estimate that the United States could close 80 coal-fired power plants if Americans switched over en masse to compact fluorescent light bulbs. A global shift, says the Institute, could close some 270 power plants worldwide. Compact fluorescent lights use less than a third of the energy required to power a traditional incandescent light bulb to produce the same amount of light.

It’s hard to say exactly why a quicker transition over to fluorescents hasn’t yet taken place in the U.S., given this substantial energy- and greenhouse gas-saving potential. China, Australia, Canada, Venezuela and Cuba have each committed to phasing out incandescent bulbs entirely within the next five years, and dozens of other countries, including all 27 members of the European Union, are deliberating whether to follow suit.

In lieu of a federal mandate in the U.S. calling for a switchover to fluorescents, the private sector, with some prodding from green groups, is taking some of its own initiatives. The nation’s largest retailer, Wal-Mart, announced last year that it would double annual sales of fluorescents to 100 million by 2008 as part of an effort to green both operations and inventory. Home Depot, Lowes and local hardware stores everywhere are getting into the act as well, giving fluorescents prominent shelf space and offering deals to promote them. And Energy Federation Inc., which has been promoting fluorescents since the 1980s, will ship direct to consumers anywhere from its Massachusetts warehouse.

Meanwhile, a coalition of nonprofits — including the Natural Resources Defense Council, Alliance to Save Energy, American Coalition for an Energy-Efficient Economy and Earth Day Network — has launched an initiative with Philips Lighting, the world’s biggest maker of fluorescents, to get Americans to make the switch.

Switching over to fluorescents doesn’t come without trade-offs. Bulbs each contain trace amounts of mercury (usually four to five milligrams), a toxic heavy metal. Exposure to mercury can cause a wide range of health problems, including damage to the central nervous system, kidneys and liver. It is also a major contaminant, polluting groundwater and waterways and posing a health threat to wildlife.

The amount of airborne mercury present after a CFL breaks is negligible, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Nonetheless, the EPA recommends that when a fluorescent bulb breaks, you should immediately open the windows and vacate the premises for at least 15 minutes to minimize the risk of exposure. Afterwards, you should clean up the breakage using gloves and paper towels or disposable rags (and avoid using a vacuum cleaner, which can stir up the airborne mercury). Remaining fragments, as well as any paper towels or rags used to clean them up, should be sealed in a plastic bag and disposed of at a local household hazardous waste collection site.

Burned-out fluorescents can also be disposed of at such sites or, in some cases, recycled at the store where they were bought. To locate a compact fluorescent bulb recycling facility, visit and type in your zip code.

For more information:

• Earth Policy Institute:

• Energy Federation Inc.:

• Earth 911:

Got an environmental question? Send it to: EarthTalk, c/o E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881; submit it at or e-mail Read past columns at:

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