Whether for environmental concerns or for the money-saving aspect, more and more people are choosing to use energy-efficient products. Amongst these products are a relatively new product called compact fluorescent (or CFL) light bulbs. What are CFL light bulbs, why are the better for the environment, and how do they work?
How Eco-Friendly Light Bulbs Help the Environment
Eco-friendly light bulbs are gaining popularity throughout the world because of their reduced environmental impact and the money saved by reduced energy bills. These bulbs use a lower wattage of electricity to produce the same amount of light as older, traditional bulbs.
By using less electricity for the same amount of light, eco-friendly light bulbs help reduce carbon output. Despite recent advances in renewable energy, a majority of the world’s electricity is created by means of coal-burning power plants and other carbon-producing methods. By reducing the amount of energy needed for any task, green-minded people can greatly reduce their personal impact on the environment.
Compact Fluorescent (CFL) vs. Incandescent Light Bulbs
While fluorescent lighting has been available for many years, for a long time the bulbs were only available in the long, tube-shaped variety. The only bulbs available to fit many fixtures were incandescent light bulbs. Incandescent bulbs work by heating a coil inside the light bulbs, called a filament, to a high temperature. This produces light. However, incandescent bulbs convert only 5% of the energy they use into light.
In contrast, CFL bulbs use on average 75% less energy to achieve the same amount of light. CFL bulbs also last years longer than their incandescent counterparts, meaning less waste for consumers. Combining the energy savings of a CFL bulb with the bulb’s extended life translates to a potential savings of $30 or more during the lifetime of each bulb. This makes purchasing CFL bulbs not only an environmentally-friendly option, but a budget-savvy decision as well.
How Compact Fluorescent (CFL) Light Bulbs Work
Rather than using heat to create light, fluorescent light bulbs rely on a chemical reaction. The bulbs are filled with a gas that produced ultraviolet (UV) light when it comes into contact with electricity. The amount of electricity needed to excite the gas and produce light in this manner is just a fraction of the power needed to use incandescent bulbs.
Since UV light is not visible to the human eye, it must go through a special filter in order to be useful. Fluorescent light bulbs contain a white coating on the inside of the bulb that acts as this filter; when the UV light passes though the coating, it changes into light that you can see.
While most traditional, tube-style fluorescent lights have a self-contained ballast, most require a separate ballast in order to function. CFL bulbs, on the other hand, always contain their own ballast. Since external ballasts should always be changed by a licensed electrician, the built-in ballast in a CFL bulb makes the product easy for consumers to use and change.
EnergyStar Light Bulbs
EnergyStar is a joint program of the United States Department of Energy and the Environmental Protection Agency that identifies energy efficient products. Look for the EnergyStar logo on any light bulbs you purchase to be sure that they are energy efficient and therefore environmentally friendly.
In order to receive the EnergyStar seal, products must meet stringent energy use standards. The seal appears on all energy efficient products sold in the United States, encouraging consumers to be conscious of their personal energy usage.
Proper Disposal of Compact Fluorescent (CFL) Light Bulb
Despite the energy-saving advantages of CFL light bulbs, in order to maximize their eco-friendly potential, they must be properly disposed of after they burn out. This is because there is a small amount of the element mercury contained within each bulb. The amount is minimal (over 100 times smaller than the amount found in most mercury thermometers), but is required for fluorescent light bulbs to function and no substitute has yet been found.
Mercury is a naturally-occurring element and can be found in the air, soil, and water in small amounts. These natural deposits of mercury are small and are generally not considered a health threat. However, excessive amounts of mercury can be extremely harmful to humans, leading to symptoms ranging from impairment of the senses to death.
The most common cause of mercury poisoning is by easting contaminated fish. Aquatic ecosystems are very sensitive to environmental hazards because aquatic life acts as a natural water filter. Fish filter contaminated water through their gills, and deposits of these toxins and impurities build up in the fish’s tissues.
In order to keep these trace amounts of mercury from contaminating groundwater and accumulating to dangerous levels, all fluorescent bulbs including CFL bulbs should disposed of properly. In order to find CFL disposal programs in your area, try the following:
- Call Earth911 at 1-800-CLEAN-UP to find local or nearby disposal sites by zip code.
- EnergyStar certified CFL bulbs all have a two-year warranty. If your CFL bulbs burns out before this warranty period expires, return the bulb to your retailer for a replacement.
- Some retailers, such as IKEA, encourage the safe disposal of CFL bulbs by offering collection services at their retail outlets. Many other major retailers are considering similar programs as well.
- If there are no CFL disposal programs available in your area and your only option is putting them in your household trash, minimize the risk of environmental contamination by securely sealing each bulb inside of a plastic bag.
Phasing Out Incandescent Light Bulbs
Many countries are moving forward with legislation and other measures to eliminate the use of inefficient incandescent bulbs. Canada and Australia are both working toward phasing out the old style bulbs in favor of new, eco-friendly options.
A number of US states are also looking into similar measures, and a voluntary push in the UK offers retailers incentives to remove old light bulbs from their shelves. As global awareness of issues like climate change and environmental conservation continue to grow, it is likely that more countries will begin to enforce such regulations.
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