Light bulbs are at the top of our energy efficiency list. There is a big drive to encourage people to stop using the old incandescent bulbs, which waste a large percentage of electricity burned in heat, and replace them with more energy efficient bulbs. CFLs have been promoted as the solution. Compact fluorescent bulbs use less energy and last longer than the old light bulb, but they have one serious drawback. They contain mercury.
Mercury is a toxic substance, dangerous to humans and animals. Each CFL contains about 5 mg of mercury. If released into the environment this tiny amount of mercury is enough to contaminate up to 6000 gallons of water, so that it is no longer safe to drink. That is just one bulb. Imagine the impact if we all started disposing of our CFLs in the trash. Landfills could be leaching mercury into the water table at an alarming rate.
So it is essential to recycle your energy-saving CFLs or at least dispose of them safely at a hazardous waste facility. There are a now a number of facilities recycling CFLs and the mercury is extracted from the bulb, purified and then sold for re-use, which makes environmental sense at least.
A bigger problem is when a CFL light bulb breaks, either in your home or in transit. Some of the mercury is released into the atmosphere as a vapour which can be breathed in. This is also toxic. There are standard guidelines on how to proceed when a CFL is broken. First of all the room should be ventilated. Then the glass and powder carefully brushed up by hand and sealed in a glass jar. Remaining powder should be picked up with a damp clo0th or paper which should be added to the sealed jar. If the vacuum cleaner is used it should be emptied and thoroughly cleaned afterwards, so that it does not distribute further mercury particles into the air.
Such an alarmingly toxic substance in a supposedly green energy-saving light bulb may put you right off all this energy efficiency. There is another less toxic option to consider: LED light bulbs. They cost more than CFLs, it's true, but they do not contain mercury and are less breakable. They also last longer than CFLs, so that in cost over lifespan terms they work out slightly cheaper. They should also be recycled at the end of their life-span as they do contain other heavy metals. One big advantage is that they last far longer than any other light bulb, so that there are fewer units that need recycling, or disposing of. A big green plus.
Whichever energy-saving light bulb you choose, just make sure that you do remember to recycle instead of tossing it in the trash. Just keep a sturdy box on hand, put the old light bulb in the packaging of its replacement, so that it doesn't break in transit, and when the box is full take it to your nearest facility for safe disposal.