Underreported: The Darker Side of Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Energy-efficient compact fluorescent bulbs are catching on as stores like Wal-Mart and Home Depot encourage their customers to make the switch. But inside each bulb is about 5 milligrams of toxic mercury. On the second part of Underreported, Leonard will be speaking with Lisa Rainwater, policy director at Riverkeeper, to find out whether that mercury offsets the environmental benefits of using the bulbs, and what lawmakers and retailers are doing to help customers safely dispose of their used compact fluorescents.

New Yorkers can drop off their used compact fluorescents at special drop-off sites around the city. For more information, go to NYCWasteLe$$ website. IKEA is also accepting used CFBs for recycling.


Lisa Rainwater

Comments [9]

Marie from Roseland NJ

Friends have told me that CFBs interfere with radio reception. I've seen a note about that on the CFB packaging. Any comments on this radio reception issue?

Aug. 22 2007 10:02 AM
Karl Lapinskas from Australia

We have just released a portable machine that safely disposes of mecury vapour containing compact fluorescent lamps, tubes and HID lights.
It traps the mecury vapour, turns free mercury into an amalgam, and separates the glass from the metal and plastic components allowing for easy classification for recycling.

The machine is called the Tube Terminator. It was an "ABC New Inventors" program segment and peoples choice winner.
More details can be found on

Aug. 20 2007 07:02 PM
David from Brooklyn

LEDs (light emitting diodes) are also more energy- efficient than standard bulbs. They are the very-bright replacements in many traffic lights and Walk/Don't Walk signs around here. Front porch lights (for example) could benefit from the long life and directionality that LEDs provide.

Aug. 19 2007 04:17 PM
Kelly from CT

Peter in CT - do you know if our state has any guidelines for disposing of CFL's safely; and/or drop-off locations?

Aug. 17 2007 11:57 AM
Peter from CT

I have children, and therefore I'm very concerned about the immediate environment inside my house. What are we supposed to do if we break a compact fluorescent bulb in our home? Articles like this scare me:

Aug. 16 2007 05:12 PM
chris from jamaica

1) Here's what the mercury does in compact flurorescents: it fluoresces! That fluoresence is converted into visible light by phospors that are coated on the interior of the glass.

2) Proper disposal is ideal and the way I see it the city has a little time (given CFs longevity) before large numbers of these start heading to landfills. Hopefully the city will have a formal recovery program within a few years. If it doesn't it would be worth asking why.

3) Although not ideal, landfilling fluorescent bulbs is a far less harmful way of disposing of mercury compared to the mercury emitted in the air by coal fired power plants. Airborne mercury is a far greater risk to health and the environment. For this reason, it is important to let people know they should never incinerate CFs.

4) Gary- do the numbers: the energy savings of CFs are significant and beneficial. Not to mention one trip to Home Depot in 5 years for a CF is a lot less than going twice a year for incandescents. Regarding China- you have a point but perhaps putting a little pressure on them to become greener would do the world some good... they might even come up with safer alternative to mercury for the next generation compact fluorescent.

Aug. 16 2007 01:41 PM
Gary from Manhattan

These are all “feel good” measures—and ridiculous. “…Put the expired bulb in two plastic bags and send it off to the landfill.”? No thanks. I’ll stick with Tommy Edison’s regular ol’ incandescents. (I turn off the light--singular--when I leave the room anyway.)

Oh--and by the way--half the people buying compact fluorescent bulbs probably drove to Home Depot in their SUVs to buy them.

Changing light bulbs won’t make a dent in carbon emissions. NOT A SINGLE DENT. China is pouring more pollutants into the air in one hour than all the “savings” all the compact fluorescent bulbs in all the world can render in a century.

Aug. 16 2007 12:58 PM
Bob from Brooklyn

Two comments:

(1)I tried calling 311 as your guest suggested to find out where the "sanitation recycling centers" for Manhattan and Brooklyn are located. The representative had no idea what I was talking about. After a very long delay, she finally transferred me to the Department of Environmental Protection, whose agent complained that "311 keeps sending us all these calls." She finally gave me the address of a facility for Manhattan (605 West 30th St.), but I'm not at all confident what would happen if I schlepped over there with some clapped out fluorescent bulbs...

(2) Why do you picture on the website one of those ugly old-fashioned bulbs, when there are sleek new ones out?

Aug. 16 2007 12:53 PM
a from NYC

Ummmmm...wait...we are supposed to dispose of the bulbs in 2 ZIPLOC (i.e. plastic) bags??? So how exactly is this environmentaly sound??????

Aug. 16 2007 12:37 PM

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