Stop Trashing the CFL!

Jon Bryan Uncategorized

First things first – the Canadian Football League is great.  Secondly, this post isn’t about the Canadian Football League, it’s about our moral obligation to help the environment.

The CFL I’m talking about today is the Compact Fluorescent Lightbulb, the ones we see every day in homes and businesses.  The concern is; what happens when they fail, what are you doing with the dead CFLs, how are you disposing of them?

Let’s back up for a moment and talk about what CFLs are.  They’re energy efficient lightbulbs that first came on the scene about 25 years ago.  You know the ones, they’re curly.  They are small fluorescent lights that replaced incandescent bulbs and helped reduce energy consumption.

The concern with CFLs is what is inside the bulb and what happens when we throw them out.   The CFL tubes are filled with argon and mercury vapor.  When electricity is introduced, through the integrated ballast at the base of the bulb, to the vaporous mixture the gas molecules are excited.  This produces ultraviolet light which, in turn, stimulates the fluorescent coating on the inside of the tube.  As this coating becomes stimulated it emits visible light.

…it is estimated dumping CFL bulbs into landfills introduces 30,000 pounds of mercury into the environment annually.

Here’s where the concern is – CFLs contain mercury (this also holds true for fluorescent tubes) and we need to make sure that the mercury stays out of landfills and out of the environment.

While it is true that each CFL bulb contains only a small amount of mercury it is the cumulative effect of millions of bulbs being incorrectly disposed of that has the potential to cause harm to our environment.   In the US it is estimated dumping CFL bulbs into landfills introduces 30,000 pounds of mercury into the environment annually.  It takes only 4mg of mercury to contaminate 7,000 gallons of fresh water.  That means the mercury from US CFL disposals alone is enough to contaminate every lake, river and stream in North America.

So let’s extrapolate back to Canada, at one tenth the population, and estimate that we’re adding another 3,000 pounds of mercury into the environment each year.  In fact, the Recycling Council of Ontario estimates that over 7 million CFL bulbs will end up Ontario landfills this year. It’s time to step back and stop this.

Every recycled bulb leads to a cleaner environment and it is the cumulative effect of all the recycling that helps keep the mercury out of the environment and an environmental disaster at bay.

The first way to stop this is to start disposing of CFL bulbs at recycling centres.  Many major hardware retailers now collect and recycle CFL bulbs as a free service to their customers.  Call them and find out.   Early adopters of these programs are companies like Home Depot and IKEA. You can also call your municipal recycling centre or waste management centre and ask where you can recycle your old CFL bulbs.  Every recycled bulb leads to a cleaner environment and it is the cumulative effect of all the recycling that helps keep the mercury out of the environment and an environmental disaster at bay.

After your old bulb burns out replace it with an environmentally friendly LED bulb.  LEDs contain no mercury or other toxins, consume less energy, do not emit UV light, do not flicker and hum, and will last far longer than your old CFLs.  As a side note, I always urge people to only choose Energy Star rated LEDs as these have all been third party tested for efficiency and longevity.

Now, what happens if you break a CFL bulb?  Remember, they have mercury vapour and argon inside.  Follow these steps to ensure a good cleanup with low environmental impact.

  1. Turn off your heating and cooling system so the fumes and gasses do not move freely throughout your home or office.
  2. Open a window for a minimum of 15 minutes to allow the room to properly ventilate.
  3. Put gloves on so you don’t touch any of the mercury powder. Using a piece of cardboard to scoop up the larger pieces of glass.
  4. Use tape, such as packing tape or duct tape to pick up the remaining smaller pieces of glass. Make sure all of the pieces, tape and cardboard are put in a plastic bag.  NEVER use a vacuum for cleanup.
  5. Using a damp paper towel wipe up the area. Place the damp paper towel in the plastic bag and seal the bag.

I’d suggest calling your municipality for advice on how to dispose of the remnants of the bulb.  Over time, with awareness, we expect to see collection centres accept this material.  Until then they may advise you to dispose of it in the garbage.

Remember, it’s the cumulative effect of all those fluorescent products ending up in the landfill that has the potential to cause major environmental damage.  Let’s all be responsible, help the environment and dispose of CFL bulbs properly.

About the Author

Jon Bryan

Jon Bryan is an energy efficiency specialist serving clients across Ontario. An expert in LED lighting and lighting design for all types of businesses, Jon also provides full energy audits & feasibility studies, LEED certification & building commissioning, and provides saveONenergy rebate applicant representative services. Jon can be reached at jonb@swantech.ca