CFL Green Quiz Challenge

CFL_bulbQ. According to ENERGY STAR, if every American replaced one traditional light bulb with an ENERGY STAR compact fluorescent light bulb (CFL), it would be like removing the greenhouse gasses of how many cars?

a) 1,000,000 b) 15,000 c) 800,000

It’s hard to imagine that replacing one light bulb could save the atmosphere from the emissions of 800,000 cars. But that’s the estimate according to ENERGY STAR, a joint program of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy.

Furthermore if we all swapped one traditional light bulb for a CFL we would:

  • Save more than $600,000,000 in annual energy costs
  • Save enough energy to light more than 3,000,000 homes for one year
  • Produce about 75 percent less heat from home lighting

These drastic improvements in energy efficiency have resulted in a phase-out of the incandescent light bulb in many parts of the world. In 2008, the European Union banned traditional light bulbs, which is projected to save the EU 30 million tons of carbon dioxide every year. Federal legislation passed in the U.S. in 2007 that requires all light bulbs to use 25-30 percent less energy by 2014. The first to go in January 2012: The 100-watt incandescent bulb.

But as we all gravitate toward these higher efficiency bulbs, it’s important to note that CFLs must be used with some care. These tips and resources will help you make the best decisions about CFL use and help you find the right fit for your home or office.

CFLs and Mercury

The caveat to the energy-saving CFL is that it employs mercury, a type of toxic metal. If a bulb breaks, the mercury can spill out, making them an unsavory candidate for lighting in children’s bedrooms, play areas or other rooms that are difficult to clean.

And although mercury is a toxic pollutant, most people are surprised to learn that there’s less mercury in a CFL bulb than in other household items, such as batteries and traditional thermometers.

Nonetheless, ENERGY STAR and EarthShare member organizations like the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) provide tips for the safe handling of broken CFL bulbs. These guidelines include:

Opening nearby windows. This will help disperse mercury vapors that may escape from the breakage.

Wiping the area with a clean, damp paper towel. Use the towel to pick up the glass fragments and do not use a vacuum, broom or your bare hands.

Placing bits of the broken bulb in a sealed plastic bag. Then, take the bag to your nearest recycling center.

Because of CFLs’ sensitive materials, it’s important to note that CFLs should always be recycled rather than thrown out with the garbage. You can find a recycling center near you at or

Choosing a Bulb

As mentioned earlier, not all CFLs are exactly alike. A January 2009 study released by the Environmental Working Group (EWG) found that some brands contain lower amounts of mercury and have a longer lifespan.

In addition to looking for ENERGY STAR stamp of approval, consider using the EWG’s checklist which contains their top recommendations for CFL brands, the amount of mercury each respective bulb contains, along with its average lighting lifespan.

Not sure if you can find an energy-saving light bulb for your special lamp or fixture? The Environmental Defense Fund has an online tool to help you find the right bulb. Simply indicate the type of fixture, shape and features (three-way? Dimmer?) you’re looking for, and the EDF will show you a list of bulbs that meet your criteria. You can print or email the results to yourself for easy shopping.

A Bright Future

According to the EWG report, CFL use in U.S. homes has reached a new high: one in four light bulbs sold in the third quarter of 2008 was a CFL.

CFLs may one day be replaced by LED lights or another technology yet to be discovered. But used properly, CFLs are currently our best choice for lighting our homes and offices in a way that saves energy and lowers our costs.

More resources on green lighting and CFLs:

Green Lighting Guide, Environmental Working Group

Mercury-Containing Light Bulb (Lamp) Recycling, Environmental Protection Agency

Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs, ENERGY STAR

Find an Energy-Saving Light Bulb, Environmental Defense Fund

CFL Bulbs or Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs, Treehugger

Have an idea to share? Tell us about it in the comments! And for more of our green tips, visit our comprehensive resource center or learn how to get involved.


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I buy Duracell batteries. I just checked the site and they are mercury-free. I buy only LED-LCD and plasma TVs which are mercury-free. I have a mercury-free thermostat, and I will buy only mercury-free light bulbs.


very vital

Madonna Wallace
save the planet... one LED bulb at a time!

Larry Marquardt

That last comment is to the point. I have had some of the old, larger bulbs that I haven't been able to get rid of due to their longevity.

I will certainly share the manufacturer's comments after I talk to them. The bulbs are warranted for 2 years at ~3hrs/day.

I wish I hadn't written the post, because I don't want to discourage people, and I really hadn't thought about these two items!


Thank you for sharing information about your informal study of CFL usage in your home! We understand that some manufacturers have been cutting corners and putting CFLs of lesser quality on the market in order to reduce the bulbs formerly high prices, and this can skew consumers’ perception of the technology. [Read more here:]

We’d be very interested to know what the manufacturer of the particular bulbs you purchased has to say about your unusual experience. Would you share their comments with us? Another option to consider: LED light bulbs!

Larry Marquardt

I'm as concerned about environmental issues as a person can be, but I do some data gathering around the house, in this case on CFL's.

Out of six bulbs purchased in April of 2008, three have burned out. That is an average lifetime of about 30 hours continuous use (which is generous, since they weren't used continuously).

Compare that to the claimed lifetime of 7 years, and the fact that my utility bill did not change noticeably after swapping out all eight of the bulbs in use, and something appears to be seriously amiss in the claims for these bulbs!

Obviously, this is a VERY small data sample, but it does indicate that more study is needed.

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