Energy-Efficient or a Pain in the Bulb?

After a CFL bulb breaks, simply "open the windows and doors, sweep up the glass and throw it away," Scarbro says. "You shouldn't vacuum because that will take whatever level of mercury airborne. But it's not enough to close off the room and call EPA."

He says old CFL bulbs should be recycled or disposed of like other hazardous waste such as paint. Some governments have begun CFL bulb recycling programs, as have IKEA and a few other retailers. One company, Veoliaes Environmental Services, accepts old bulbs by mail for recycling.

But there is no national recycling system, and frustration over the availability of recycling programs is raising questions about how long it will take such programs to catch on. Drey says she called a hotline run by the maker of her bulbs to learn how to recycle them. "It was not an easy thing to do," she says.

Scarbro and other CFL advocates say that even if such bulbs are thrown into the trash, each CFL bulb represents a net reduction of mercury in the environment compared with each incandescent bulb. That's because the amount of mercury generated by a power plant to light a CFL bulb is dramatically less than that generated to light an incandescent bulb, Scarbro says.

Federal officials agree that the energy saved by CFL bulbs makes them worthwhile.

Lighting typically makes up about 20 percent of a household's electric bill. Because CFLs are close to 75 percent more efficient than regular light bulbs, the EPA estimates that if every home in America replaced just one light bulb with a CFL bulb rated highly by the agency, the USA would save enough energy to light more than 3 million homes for a year and more than $600 million in annual energy costs. It also would prevent greenhouse gases equivalent to the emissions of more than 800,000 cars, the EPA says.

Trying to save energy

That was Veson Terry's motivation. He just moved from an apartment in San Francisco where the utilities were paid to a condo in Daly City, Calif., where he pays the bills. "I decided I want to see whether this stuff really works." So he has swapped out every incandescent bulb in his unit for a CFL.

He even has them in his dining room's chandelier, though it means he can't use the dimmer. Even so, he's pleased with the results. The top swirl of the bulbs sticks out of the lamps, "but I don't care, just as long as I can save energy."

CFL bulbs were invented in 1976 by Ed Hammer, a General Electric engineer. They were a response to the energy crisis of 1973-1974. But his spiral tube design was too expensive to make and too fragile to ship, so GE shelved it.

A more incandescent-like warm white CFL was developed by Phillips in 1982. It wasn't until 1995 that a cost-effective, durable spiral design was introduced. But there were many problems with the original CFLs, making some early adopters swear off them forever.

Besides their unflattering light, they didn't last as long as they do now -- 1,000 hours then, up to 15,000 hours today. They also were more expensive: $10 to $20, compared with as little as $3 today.

Horowitz acknowledges the shortcomings of CFLs but says the congressional mandate to boost efficiency will push manufacturers to keep coming up with better bulbs.

"This is an easy way to address global warming," Drey says. "We all have to participate. That's all there is to it."

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