Energy efficient bulbs only 'green' if recycled

Environmentally Challenged: By Brian Troutman

Energy efficient light bulbs - I became obsessed with them last September while being whisked down a long hospital corridor - flat on my back, on a stretcher.

When you're stuck in a hospital, and all you can do is look up, obsessions like that are easily manifested.

Those squiggly little bulbs look pretty funny, but exactly how much energy do they save? Are they worth the investment? Are they really all that "green?"

According to a press release found on the website of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average home will save a minimum of $60 a year on energy costs by switching to energy efficient bulbs. The report states that if every home in America used a minimum of five energy efficient bulbs, a minimum of 800 billion kWh of electricity would be salvaged - enough to light at least 34 million homes for a year.

But here's the rub.

Those energy efficient bulbs are compact fluorescents, and each bulb contains small amounts of mercury. No mercury is released when the bulbs are intact and in use, but CFLs release mercury vapor when broken. If used and disposed of or recycled properly, mercury released into the environment would not be an issue.

However, I am certain most households and businesses are just tossing these CFLs in the wastebasket when they expire.

The EPA estimates that of over 670 million mercury-containing bulbs discarded each year, most are not recycled. However, the agency argues that while this is not preferred, it is still a better alternative. In the grand scheme, the EPA estimates that the amounts of mercury released into the environment via CFLs is minimal in comparison to the release of mercury into the environment via coal burning power plants.

If you are having a hard time following that, let me try to explain further:

We are fighting mercury with mercury. The more CFLs used, the less energy is consumed. Thus, the amount of large mercury releases into the environment by power plants is reduced.

That being said, at what point do the CFLs, like our current issue with electronic waste, begin presenting problems at landfills across the country?

My guess is that if we don't start disposing of these CFLs properly, trouble could come sooner than the EPA would like to believe. Approximately, 98 percent of all the materials used to manufacture CFLs are recyclable - including the mercury.

Business and homeowners must begin recycling these CFLs. While there are short-term financial and environmental benefits, their use really isn't all that "green" unless the mercury is being salvaged and reused.