With all the attention compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) get for saving energy, it seems like the importance of recycling them has taken a back seat. A study by the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers (ALMR) cited in a 2011 Consumer Reports article found that only 2 percent of consumers said they actually recycle their CFLs (24 percent of all fluorescent lamps are recycled). This means the majority of them end up in the landfill, where they are likely to break and release mercury.
While each fluorescent bulb contains on average just 4 milligrams of mercury (an old thermometer contains roughly 500 milligrams), the numbers start to add up. A study by the Solid Waste Association of North America estimates that roughly 500 million fluorescent bulbs (not just CFLs) are thrown away, and likely broken, each year. While coal-fired powerplants represent the largest unregulated industrial source of mercury emissions, releases from fluorescent lamps can accumulate in lakes and rivers, and therefore, enter the food chain.
However, even when accounting for the mercury emissions of broken bulbs, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says the use of high-efficiency bulbs actually reduces total mercury emissions. Since they use about 75 percent less electricity than incandescent lightbulbs, they significantly reduce the demand for energy, and therefore the amount of coal that is burned in power plants. Furthermore, manufacturers have been working to reduce the amount of mercury used in CFLs for the last several years. Though it remains an essential component, EnergyStar says manufacturers have cut mercury content by an average of 20 percent, with some bulbs containing just 1 milligram of mercury. Consumer Reports says they found similar results.
So how can we motivate people to recycle their spent CFLs? Paul Abernathy, executive director of ALMR, said to Consumer Reports that there needs to be a federal “policy or program that compels people to recycle CFLs—as in you get in trouble or are rewarded.” I think a lot of us can agree on that.