Life After The Incandescent Bulb

If you have gone to the store in hopes of replacing a burned out incandescent bulb, you have surely noticed that you will have to choose from among several new light technologies. Are these new bulbs better? What are the pros and cons?

In December 2007, President George W. Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act, establishing an energy policy that aimed to help the US to become energy independent. Part of this law set efficiency standards for light bulbs. The incandescent bulb, we have all used since Edison, is only 10% efficient at ‘making light’; the other 90% of the electricity it uses is lost as heat. Beginning in 2012, light bulb manufacturers had to produce bulbs that used 27% less energy by 2014. The second part of the law requires that by 2020 most bulbs will be 60-70% more efficient than the standard incandescent bulb.

Beginning in 2002, the Maine Public Utilities Commission began promoting the use of compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) as a replacement for incandescent bulbs because CFL’s are more energy efficient and cost less to operate in the long run. However, CFL’s have a major drawback – they contain a small amount of mercury. Mercury does not break down when released into the environment. According to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection, mercury levels found in Maine wildlife are among the highest in North America. The US Department of Environmental Protection reports that when mercury gets into the environment, it falls in rivers, lakes, and oceans where it then is consumed by fish. Birds and mammals that eat fish are exposed to more mercury than other animals in the water ecosystem. The effects of mercury exposure on wildlife include mortality (death), reduced fertility, slower growth and development, and abnormal behavior. All of this affects survivali.

If you break a CFL:
There is a very detailed procedure for the proper cleanup of broken CFL’s in the home. Visit Maine DEP for details.

Did you know that it is illegal to throw mercury-added bulbs into the trash in Maine? Maine lawii requires all consumers to recycle mercury-added bulbs specifically to prevent the escape of mercury into the environment. A 2009 University of Maine study revealed that, although Maine has one of the highest usage rates of CFL’s in the nation, 63% of respondents did not know that CFL’s must be recyclediii.

Used or unwanted CFL’s should be taken to the transfer station and turned over to staff who will make sure that they are disposed of properly. Once turned in at the transfer station, undamaged CFL or fluorescent bulbs are collected until the dedicated storage boxes are filled. Full boxes are sent to the Lincoln County Recycling Program in Wiscasset who ship them to a company called Veolia. Veolia then distributes them to strictly regulated companies that specialize in recovering and reusing the mercury. Therefore the heavy metal is recycled and the environment is protected.

Fortunately, now there is a better choice on the market: Light emitting diode or LED bulbs. The price of LED’s is coming down all the time and they now are available in bulbs that can be dimmed and that have a warm, natural quality of light. LED bulbs use 84% less energy than incandescent bulbs. About 95% of the materials used to make up a LED bulb can be recycled too, so when disposing of a spent bulb, turn them into staff at the transfer station, where they will be separated according to proper established protocol.

By Joan Panek, PWA Member 


Photo credits:”Gluehlampe 01 KMJ” by KMJ – de.wikipedia, original upload 26 Jun 2004 by de:Benutzer:KMJ. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons


iiAn Act To Provide for the Safe Collection and Recycling of Mercury-containing Lighting

iii“Household Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) Recycling in Maine” by Travis P. Wagner. Assoc. Professor at University of Southern Maine, Dept. of Environmental Science. 2009.

For thoroughness, I do note that there is one other type of bulb on the market right now: the halogen light bulb. Halogen bulbs are not as energy efficient as LED or CFL’s , they do not last very long, and they produce a lot of heat.

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