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Buying lightbulbs, which used to be as simple as choosing wattage and socket size, has become an increasingly complicated task — especially when you want to make the most eco-friendly choice, too.
“Lightbulbs affect the climate in two primary ways,” Matthew Eckelman, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Northeastern University, tells Yahoo Life. “One is carbon emissions from generating electricity needed to run them, and the other is from emissions due to their manufacturing. When we replace lightbulbs with more efficient versions, such as using an LED in place of an incandescent, this reduces the electricity needed and so cuts down on the emissions — not just of greenhouse gases but of many other types of air pollutants as well.”
As everyone is taught in grade school, Thomas Alva Edison, in 1879, invented the lightbulb, or at least the first effective version, known as the incandescent: a round globe encasing a wire filament that glows when it’s heated.
Now, of course, with increasing knowledge about the environmental hazards of Edison’s invention, federal regulations incentivize switching to ecologically sound lights — including halogen, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) and light-emitting diodes (LEDs), the last of which having seen a steady rise in sales. In 2020, in fact, 47% of U.S. households reported using LEDs for most of their lighting — a staggering increase from just 4% in 2015.
“Energy-efficient lighting is the big energy story that nobody is talking about,” says Lucas Davis, a professor at the Haas School of Business at the University of California Berkeley who has expertise in energy and environmental markets. “After being dominated by traditional incandescents for 100-plus years, the lightbulb market has been completely transformed over the last decade.” And that’s no small feat, he says, noting, “Rarely does a new technology come along which does the same thing, but using a small fraction of the amount of energy.”
Why is that so important? Because a whopping 60.8% of electricity in the U.S. is produced by using fossil fuels, resulting not only in the release of greenhouse gases but also in air pollution, which is the culprit of 1 in 5 deaths per year globally. And switching to LEDs can make a significant impact.
That’s partially due to the energy output required to create light. Quick primer: It’s lumens, not watts, that equal brightness; watts measure energy use, and high wattage means high lumens. A standard 60-watt incandescent bulb equals 800 lumens. But you could have the same lumens with just 22 watts of LED light or 26 watts of CFL light.
“Going from an incandescent to an LED is like replacing a car that gets 25 miles per gallon with another one that gets 130,” says Davis. Below, read more about LEDs — as well as incandescent, halogen and CFL bulbs.
Types of bulbs, from worst to best and everything in-between
Though still the most popular type of bulb, Edison's invention is fast becoming outdated and for good reason: Only 10% of the power winds up in the visible spectrum, making it extremely inefficient, as the leftover energy, all 90% of it, escapes as useless heat.
In heat lamps, such as those used for incubators (or the Easy-Bake Oven), heat from the filament is the goal. But anytime a bulb is used for light and not heat, these bulbs are a poor choice.
They also have a short life-span — 1,000 hours of light as compared to, say, 10,000 for CFLs and 50,000 for LEDs.
It's why many countries (including those in the European Union, plus Australia and Switzerland) have already started officially phasing them out — and why they’re set to be banned in the U.S., along with halogen bulbs (more on those, below), by July 2023. That comes after federal regulation upheaval; earlier this year, the Biden administration reversed a Trump-era policy, paving the way to phase out bulbs that produce less than 45 lumens per watt — which, in simpler terms, means that bulbs must produce light by using far less energy. (Both LED and CFLs meet the new requirement.)
In the meantime, to properly toss out an incandescent bulb, throw it in with household trash (wrap any broken bulbs in heavy paper first). The amount of metal and glass in incandescent lights is generally too small to recycle, but check with your local recycling plant to make sure.
Halogen bulbs can be compared to incandescent bulbs, though there are notable differences that caused a spurt of popularity a few years back.
While halogen bulbs, like incandescent, contain a filament made of the metal tungsten, they are, in this case, encased in a quartz envelope (as glass would melt from the heat); the gas inside is in the halogen family and combines with vapor from the tungsten, which then evaporates and is redeposited on the filament.
Because of this lengthy recycling process, the bulb's life-span is far longer than its incandescent cousin.
But while halogens can last three times longer than incandescent bulbs, they are far from the most efficient — which is why they, too, will be officially banned in the U.S., along with incandescents, as of July 2023.
That will effectively take care of other halogen bulb hazards — including that they can cause burns if touched, do not work as well in cold environments and are sensitive to skin oils, which could even cause the bulbs to burst.
But while they are still around, halogen bulbs, like incandescents, can be tossed into household garbage when they've burned out.
Compact Fluorescent Lights (CFLs)
CFLs are also a more energy-efficient option than incandescents — 75% more efficient. If every household in the U.S. replaced one incandescent bulb with a CFL, in fact, the energy saved could light 3 million homes. That’s because CFLs rely on electricity, not heat, to produce light.
According to Energy Star, the government-backed symbol for energy efficiency (a certification that’s worth seeking out), a CFL works when an electric current is driven through a tube containing argon and a tiny amount of mercury vapor, thus creating undetectable ultraviolet light that triggers a fluorescent coating inside — the source of the visible light.
The main downside of CFL bulbs is the mercury, about 4 milligrams in each bulb. And while no mercury is released when the bulbs are just sitting there, or when they are in use, it can become a hazard if the bulb should break — in which case, proper (elaborate) care should be taken in cleaning it up.
Still, the small amount of mercury that could wind up in the environment if a CFL breaks is nothing compared to the amount that’s created from coal-fired power plants. “A major source of mercury is coal-fired power plants,” says Eckelman, and improving bulb efficiency can reduce that by lowering energy demand.”
CFLs also come with some health risks: They can produce ultraviolet radiation, which can cause skin damage (though it can generally be avoided by sitting at least a foot away from the light and not using one for longer than three hours at a time).
And while some have reported headaches or eye strain from fluorescent lighting, newer CFLs use electronic ballasts and higher frequencies that result in undetectable changes in light and much less of a headache-causing “hum.” Notably, those with certain autoimmune diseases like lupus might find themselves more sensitive to CFLs and should buy only bulbs marked “low UV.”
Finally, another downside is that CFLs can throw harsh light, which could be the reason behind some consumers' resistance. But look for the CRI (color rendering index) value on the packaging, with 100 being the highest possible. A score of 95 or higher means the colors under the light source will appear as they do in natural light. The most common score, though, is 80 (even, typically, in cases where the package does not include a CRI), so look carefully to avoid that harshness.
When it comes to disposal, CFL bulbs should never be tossed out because of the mercury, which can then leak into groundwater. Instead, seek out online services (such as EZ on the Earth and BulbCycle) that accept mailed in bulbs for recycling (for a fee), as do some retailers, such as Home Depot (for free); contact your local store for guidance.
Though CFLs are more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs, LEDs are still far superior — 90% more efficient than those old-fashioned bulbs — making them the best in terms of efficiency.
This is a bulb, without a filament, that lights up due to electrons flowing through semiconductor material. It does not get hot, and it has a life-span thousands of hours longer than that of an incandescent bulb.
Some are put off by the higher cost of LEDs — about $4 for an LED bulb as compared to $1 for an incandescent — but considering that most of an incandescent bulb’s energy (90%) is wasted through heat output, the lower price tag is deceptive.
That’s partly because incandescent bulbs need to be replaced 25 to 50 times more often than their LED counterparts, which in turn increases GhGs (greenhouse gas emissions), making an unnecessary large carbon footprint. In fact, LED bulbs emit the least amount of carbon dioxide — 451 pounds annually as compared to 4,500 for incandescent bulbs and 1,051 for CFLs, and, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, replacing just one old-school lightbulb with an LED in every U.S. household would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 9 billion pounds.
Over a decade, the original incandescent bulb and its replacements will cost about $93, whereas over the same stretch of time, that LED bulb will cost $19.45 — as just one LED bulb can last up to 20 years. (For more details about how much you could save by switching to LED, Lighting Tutor has created an LED cost-savings calculator.)
However, LED lights can carry health concerns, too. They run the risk of disturbing our sleep and damaging the eyes — specifically when there’s chronic exposure to high-intensity blue light (also found on smartphones and computer screens), which can carry an increased risk of age-related macular degeneration.
But “warm white” domestic LED lighting has very weak phototoxicity risks, similar to those of traditional incandescent lighting. This means that LED lighting in your house is not necessarily problematic, but it's still good to opt for a warmer light whenever possible. The easiest way to determine if the light produced is warm or cool is to look for the CCT (correlated color temperature) rating on the box, indicated by degrees using the Kelvin scale (an international unit of temperature). The higher up on the scale, the colder the light — a warm light is about 2700K; 5,000K or higher and you're looking at cold light.
Also, LEDs can throw potentially throw harsh light just like some CFLs; again, look for the CRI value on the packaging and aim for a score of 95 or higher for the most natural looking light.
As for disposing of LED bulbs, though it’s common practice to throw them away, many communities offer recycling collections for them since the majority of the components can be recycled; Earth911 offers resources for how to recycle LEDs, and you can also call your local municipal solid waste agency.
The future is bright
While the upcoming ban on Edison's incandescent bulbs may be a difficult adjustment for many, take heart in the fact that the bold move could potentially prevent 222 million tons of carbon pollution — or the equivalent annual emissions of 48 million vehicles — over the next three decades.
Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm said in a statement at the time of the April announcement of the ban: “By raising energy efficiency standards for lightbulbs, we’re putting $3 billion back in the pockets of American consumers and substantially reducing domestic carbon emissions.”
Experts are optimistic and not only because of the government’s new standards. As Lucas says, “I'm amazed by how quickly the price of LEDs has fallen — and excited about the opportunities LEDs create for households and companies.”
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