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"Battle of the Bulb" (Peltier finds CFL mercury emissions equal to that of power plants)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- March 7, 2012

[Ed. note: Robert Peltier, editor of POWER magazine, has insightful commentary in his ‘Speaking of Power’ op-ed series. MasterResource reprints his op-ed below with permission.]

“What happens to the millions of used CFLs that are tossed out in the trash each year? Chances are a large percentage are broken by users at home or are broken when compressed in the trash truck or compacted in a landfill. Regardless, the mercury contained in the bulbs is released to the environment.”

“My research found, much to my surprise, that both emissions—from [power plant] stack gas or broken compact fluorescent lighbulbs (CFL)—produce about the same magnitude of mercury release.”

– Robert Peltier, “Battle of the Bulb,” POWER, February 2012, p. 6.

President George W. Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 with the words: “New technologies will help usher in a better quality of life for our citizens.”

One stipulation of that law required an increase in the efficiency of newly manufactured lightbulbs, starting with 100-watt incandescent bulbs in 2012. Additional requirements affect 75-watt incandescent bulbs in 2013 and 60- and 40-watt incandescent bulbs in 2014.

The law did not ban the use of incandescent lights, as commonly believed, but it did prohibit the production or importation of bulbs that fail to meet the new efficiency standards after the cut-off date.

That law became effective January 1; however, the budget bill passed by Congress late last year does not allow the Department of Energy to enforce the lightbulb provision until September 30. The legislation that won overwhelming approval in 2007 has evolved into a cause célèbre this election year.

The real problem with this law, and the focus of the public’s ire, concerns the disposal cost of these new bulbs, not so much the efficiency standard per se. It is an environmental problem, in other words.

Political Passions

The electioneering on lightbulbs has become intense. U.S. Rep. Joe Barton (R-Texas) is the most vocal opponent of the bulb provision of the law, believing it is just another example of a government that is overstepping its authority by regulating citizens’ freedom of choice. However, there was no such controversy when the original language for the rule was drafted.

In fact, the language was cosponsored by Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich. and Rep. Dennis Hastert, R-Ill. The amendment to the act passed easily through the House Energy and Commerce Committee, chaired by Upton; was passed by the Senate in a vote of 86-8; passed by the House by a vote of 314-100; and was signed into law by President Bush.

You may recall that after Republicans won the House in the 2010 election cycle, Barton decided to take on Upton for chairmanship of the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee. When Barton researched Upton’s past for evidence of a too-moderate voting record to justify leaving him in leadership, Upton’s support of the lightbulb efficiency standard was singled out.

Barton thereafter launched the “Save the Light Bulb” campaign, which went viral among conservatives hungry for a wedge issue. Barton’s chairmanship bid soon died, but the lightbulb non-issue continued to prosper.

Unreasonable Expectations

Ironically, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) finalized the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS) for power plants in late December at about the same time as the enforcement date of the lightbulb standard was delayed by Congress. Both rules seek to reduce mercury releases into our environment, yet my research found, much to my surprise, that both emissions—from stack gas or broken compact fluorescent lighbulbs (CFL)—produce about the same magnitude of mercury release.

The EPA says that the average CFL has 4 to 5 milligrams (mg) of mercury—enough to cover the tip of a ballpoint pen. The agency estimates that over the useful life of a CFL (about 8,000 hours), the amount of mercury released into the atmosphere by a coal-fired plant to produce the electricity to run the CFL is about 4.3 mg.

Overlooked during the ongoing lightbulb wars is that CFLs are sure to increase consumers’ cost of lightbulb disposal. What happens to the millions of used CFLs that are tossed out in the trash each year? Chances are a large percentage are broken by users at home or are broken when compressed in the trash truck or compacted in a landfill. Regardless, the mercury contained in the bulbs is released to the environment.


Over the years, I’ve broken a number of CFLs at home. The bulb usually breaks off at the base when I am unscrewing the bulb from a frozen socket. I sweep up the broken pieces and residue, empty them into a trash cash, wash my hands, and return to my bulb replacement chore.

Recently, I ran across an EPA-sponsored website dedicated to proper disposal techniques for CFLs. Should you break a CFL, here are a few of the EPA’s recommendations:

  • Don’t touch the CFL contents without protective gloves.
  • Escort all children, pregnant women, and pets out of the room. Next, open doors and windows for 5-10 minutes to air out the room. Turn off the heating or AC system and leave off, if possible, for several hours.
  • Collect the residue using stiff paper, sticky tape, and damp towels. Seal all in a glass jar with metal lid or in a sealable plastic bag. Do not vacuum up the residue, as it may spread the mercury-containing powder into the air.
  • Clothes you are wearing should not be washed, but double-bagged for disposal.
  • Store the broken pieces and residue in an outdoor trash container until “the materials can be disposed of properly.”

According to the EPA, the only proper method of disposal for broken CFLs is to take them to a hazardous waste facility.

Following the EPA’s advice, the out-of-pocket costs of breaking a single CFL could easily exceed the energy savings realized from using CFLs accumulated over many years–and put a dent in your wardrobe at the same time.

What should I do if I break multiple CFLs on my carpet in a fit of pique after writing this POWER editorial? The EPA suggests I call a hazardous waste cleanup firm.

What would you do?


  1. de. James H. Rust  

    The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 has to be a terrible piece of legislation and needs to be repealed now. This act mandates the use of 35 billion gallons of ethanol for transportation by 2022. At the time of the legislation it was thought ethanol could be made form wood chips. So far it can’t and we are using 44 percent of our corn crop to make ethanol from corn. Last year 5 billion bushels of corn was converted to 12 billion gallons of ethanol. There are many reports it takes more energy to produce ethanol from corn than is contained in the product. This madness has to cease. The ethanol from corn requirement has driven the price of corn from $2.50 per bushel to $7 per bushel which has caused inflation throughout the food chain.

    It will be difficult to extract ourselves from using ethanol from corn due to the size of the industry. The start has to be now. Get Congress to act!

    James H. Rust


  2. Mike Giberson  

    At this EPA clean-up site, it doesn’t mention the double-bagging of clothes for disposal. http://epa.gov/cfl/cflcleanup-detailed.html

    I recently broke a CFL and only haphazardly followed the EPA guidelines – aired out the room, but continued cleaning the broken glass at the same time (using damp paper towels); scooped up as much of the glass as possible into the trash can and then took the trash out; some of the glass and presumable some residual mercury fell into the sink (the brand-new bulb was being installed above a bathroom sink) and what was too small to scoop up was just washed down the sink.

    I wonder what calculations the EPA (or anyone) have done on breakage rates and resulting mercury emissions from CFLs.


  3. Jon Boone  

    I have no problem with the efficiency standard, either. And, yes, the environmental irony of unintended consequences is well stated here. However, I have a major beef with the quality of light CFLs produce, as do many others: http://tinyurl.com/7yslllf.


  4. T. Caine  

    I may be misunderstanding, but concerning the mercury tally for CFLs:

    4-5 mg is the amount in a CFL. Over 8,000 hours, there’s another 4.3 mg of mercury released via the coal power it takes to use, for a total of 9.3mg.

    If a CFL uses 25% of the power that an incandescent does, then using your number of 4.3mg an incandescent should be creating 17.2mg of mercury from the coal power that it is using to keep it on for the same 8,000 hours. Aren’t we cutting almost cutting the mercury production in half as a result of using CFLs?

    This is on top of the fact that the high end of an incandescent’s lifespan is 2,000 hours, so to illuminate for 8,000 hours the energy of manufacturing, packaging and shipping is all quadrupled.


  5. pdub  

    About mercury emissions being the same

    It’s even worse…
    Effectively the same coal gets burned, regardless of whether your light bulb is on or off, and of course coal is by far the major power plant source:
    (power plants on anyway at night, peak electricity from lower emission sources, low grid electricity savings anyway, etc)
    remembering the less than 1% overall energy savings
    anyway on the referenced DOE stats

    The Deception behind Banning Light Bulbs:
    13 point referenced summary on Freedom Light Bulb blog, linked via “peter” name


  6. Lionell Griffith  

    When you are a GE and have a government funded monopoly, you don’t have to care about the quality of your product. Your customers must buy them by law enforced by the gun of the government.


  7. Robert Bradley Jr.: “Battle of the Bulb” (Peltier finds CFL mercury emissions equal to that of power plants) | JunkScience.com  

    […] Read on at MasterResource Share this:PrintEmailMoreStumbleUponTwitterFacebookDiggRedditLike this:LikeBe the first to like this post. This entry was posted in CFLs, Coal, Mercury. Bookmark the permalink. ← China finds the odd 200 years worth of fuel […]


  8. Snorbert Zangox  

    I take issue with the claim that the “law does not ban incandescent bulbs”; it is a trivial and untrue claim. After 100 years of manufacturing and improving incandescent technology it has become clear that there will be no further efficiency improvements. The only way to improve the efficiency of the bulbs is to increase the temperature of the filament which would increase the percentage of light and decrease the percentage of heat emitted. Materials to effect that change do not exist. The hot wire, i.e. incandescent, technology has reached its maximum efficiency. Other technologies, i.e. LED may be workable, but are too expensive. The law is a de facto ban of incandescent technology.


  9. Eric Anderson  

    Is anyone aware of good studies that look at CFL lifetimes in actual use?

    When CFL’s came out, they were routinely claiming 10-year lifetimes under normal use. In my own extensive personal use, I can tell you that this is not even in the ballpark. I have had to replace many bulbs after a year or two — often less, and that is with medium and in some cases, light, use. The other thing I have noticed is a huge disparity between bulbs. One bulb will last a long time, another bulb, right alongside, will not last nearly as long. I’m wondering if the ballasts are more fragile and more subject to variation than they should be. I’ve often thought that if I were the suing kind a class action lawsuit against the wildly inaccurate lifetime claims might shed some light. Has anyone formally challenged manufacturer’s claims?

    I note that CFL’s now have tended to back off from the rosy lifetime claims, but they still seem way overstated on average.


  10. peter  

    It is effectively a ban on ordinary incandescents also because of the 45 lumen per Watt end regulation, which the Philips, GE, Osram manufacturers who sought the ban for profitability reasons would be unlikely to improve on anyway even if it became possible.
    (http://ceolas.net/#li12ax) referenced and documented

    It also links to the Freedom Light Bulb blog Deception listing,
    including why light bulb use effectively cause no coal emissions anyway, as commented above.


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