Thinking about buying CFLs? Good for you: compact fluorescent light bulbs are proven energy savers, and most people like the convenience of popping in a bulb they shouldn't have to change for years. While CFLs will always cost more than conventional incandescent bulbs, the extra expense at purchase is probably a better investment these days than the stock market.
But there's the mercury thing. We've been writing about CFLs for over two years, and have always been honest about their mercury content. If you've not heard it by now, we'll say it again: CFLs contain mercury. Not a lot — if you have an old style thermostat switch, it contains up to six hundred times more — but there is no safe level of mercury in the environment, your home or your body.
Mercury exposure is unacceptable
Most power in the United States is generated through the burning of coal. This process releases mercury into the atmosphere. From there, mercury finds its way into our lungs, the environment and into the food chain.
If you live in an area served by a coal-fired plant, your CFLs are actually net negative when it comes to mercury. They save so much energy over the course of their lifetime that less mercury is released through power generation than could potentially occur due to improper bulb disposal.
Of course, all bets are off if your area happens to be served by something other than coal. And playing the averages isn't good enough, particularly if you live downwind from a municipal trash incinerator or your drinking water is within reach of a landfill. CFLs require special disposal. The unfortunate fact is that only a tiny percentage of the CFLs sold today are being properly disposed or recycled. The overwhelming majority of broken or spent CFLs are thoughtlessly dumped as regular trash.
It's time to evangelize on behalf of CFL recycling
CFL adoption finally has legs. You can go into pretty much any store that sells regular light bulbs and find CFLs in several varieties. Increased supply has brought CFL prices down to the reach of most consumers, even during a tough economy. CFLs are frequently mentioned as a first step on the way to greener living, and you'd be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't understand that those funny looking squiggly bulbs save money and electricity.
You can thank concerted evangelism by early adopters, retailers and environmental groups for getting CFLs off the ground. It's going to take a similar effort to spread the word about mercury in CFLs and get people disposing of them properly. Affordable, practical LED bulbs are still years away, and we can't expect CFL adoption to keep moving ahead if we can't close the loop on safe mercury disposal.
Take the CFL Recycling Challenge
Ready to become a part of the solution? Then join CFL Recycling Challenge:
I promise to properly dispose of every CFL (compact flourescent light bulb) that I purchase, and will help spread the word about CFL recycling options.
There's our intention: to get every CFL bulb to a recycler or mercury reclamation center. We want zero CFLs finding their way to landfills, incinerators, or municipal solid waste systems not equipped to handle them.
Seven ways to become a CFL recycling superhero
1) Right now — before you need to dispose of a CFL — find out about the recycling options in your community. A great resource for all things recycling is Earth911. A number of retailers, such as Home Depot, are sponsoring recycling programs. Find out 5 ways to dispose of old CFLs.
2) Reward responsible retailers. Purchase CFLs only from stores which support take-back programs and CFL recycling. Let store employees know you appreciate their company's stand on the environment.
3) Encourage CFL retailers to start their own take-back programs. Sometime in the next week, ask to speak to a manager at a store which sells CFLs, but hasn't yet started a recycling program. Be polite and thank them for making energy efficient bulbs available to the public. Briefly inform them of CFL mercury content and ask that they at least offer a take-back program for their own customers. Follow-up by writing a letter, sending an email, or calling their corporate offices and repeating your request.
4) Talk to your friends, family and co-workers about the importance of CFL recycling. Supply them with whatever you've found out about your community's recycling options. If necessary, give them a 5-gallon plastic bucket with a lid or some other safe storage receptacle and offer to pick up their old CFLs once or twice a year. Start a CFL recycling program at work, where you worship, and through your professional and civic associations.
5) Let elected officials know you want safe CFLs disposal in your community. Quite a few municipalities are already developing ways to separate and pre-process discarded CFLs. Find out if yours is one of these.
6) Ask your favorite green website or environmental group to support the CFL Recycling Challenge. Suggest they start talking to their readers about CFL recycling. The contents of this article may be reprinted, adapted, or used in any way.
7) Tweet the CFL Recycling Challenge. It seems that everyone is using Twitter these days, and it's a great way to get the word out. Please use the handy "Tweet" link near the top of the article to let people know you support CFL recycling. You can also email this article to friends, buzz it up at Yahoo, or bookmark it at a service such as StumbleUpon or Reddit.
It's 2009, and over 90 percent of all expended CFLs are ending up in the regular solid waste disposal stream. Where will we be a year from now? That's largely up to you. Become a recycling superhero — take the CFL Recycling Challenge today!