We all want to save energy, money and the planet, don't we?

But did you know...

 ... that home lighting uses on average only about 3-4% of total home energy consumption?

 ... that space heating and water heating can use up to 80%?

Which makes most sense to focus on? The 3-4% and replacing a few light bulbs at home? Or the 80% and turning the heat down, washing clothes at lower temperatures and taking shorter showers?

Switching to more effective lamps can of course make a difference where you have a large number of very bright lamps left on all day and/or all night, such as in commercial-, office-, industry- and street lighting. But most lamps in those sectors are already higher-efficiency/lower quality lamps.

At home, most lamps are usually not bright enough, numerous enough or in use enough hours per day that it will make much of a difference on those 3-4%, other than lowering the light quality in your home.


Lighting Technology Materials

1. Incandescent Lamps

The easiest, cheapest and safest lamp to produce, distribute and recycle. 

May contain: 
  • Soda-lime glass (+ kaolin clay if frosted inside) 
  • 15% nitrogen + 85% argon (gas mix)
  • Tungsten wire filament
  • Molybdenum, copper, iron, and/or nickel support or electrical wires
  • Aluminium or brass base
  • Antimony tin solder (may be lead in some non-EU countries)
  • Phenolic resin 
Source: Osram-Sylvania Material Safety Data Sheet

Incandescent bulb autopsy: base, filament, glass


  2. Halogen Lamps

Improved mini incandescent lamps, including Eco replacement bulbs.

May contain:
  • Quartz glass (inner)
  • Soda-lime glass (outer)
  • Tungsten wire filament
  • Bromine or iodine (halogen gas, trace amounts)
  • Molybdenum, copper, iron and/or nickel metal/wires
  • Aluminium or brass (screw base) or ceramic (pin & double-ended)
Sources: General Electric & Osram-Sylvania Material Safety Data Sheets

Halogen Energy Saver autopsy: Base, inner bulb, glass


3. Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFL)

A CFL with integrated electronic ballast is quite a complex product, including a 24-component microchip. 

CFL innards from EE Times

May contain:
  • Soda-lime glass
  • PBT or PET (brominated polymerantimony oxide) plastic housing
  • Mercury (vapour or amalgam)
  • Krypton-85 (gas)
  • Nickel-plated brass base
  • Aluminum, coppernickel, tin and/or zinc base or wires
  • Lead oxide, aluminium oxide
  • Barium/aluminum oxide compounds (phosphor)
  • Manganese (phosphor)
  • Lanthanumyttrium oxide or phosphate (rare earth phosphor)
  • Lead solder
Sources: Osram-SylvaniaGE, Philips Material Safety Data Sheets

Mercury is extremely harmful to miners and the environment in China! 
"The European Union directive calling for compact fluorescent bulbs to be made mandatory by 2012 has encouraged China to re-open deadly cinnabar mines to obtain the mercury required for CFL bulb manufacture." 
"Abandoned mercury mine processing sites often contain very hazardous waste piles of roasted cinnabar calcines. Water run-off from such sites is a recognized source of ecological damage."

The mercury is also extremely harmful to CFL assembly workers, garbage collectors and recycling plant staff, as mercury vaporises at room temperature (!) and is easily inhaled. An investigative Times Online article May 3, 2009 reported that:
"Large numbers of Chinese workers have been poisoned by mercury, which form part of the compact fluorescent lightbulbs." 
CFL factory in India
(image from documentary Bulb Fiction)

Very harmful to the environment if thrown away with household trash, as most CFLs are.
"Once in a landfill, mercury in broken lamps gets digested by microbes and emitted as methyl mercury which will then be washed out through run off water and thence into the ecosystem." Mercury in fluorescent lighting

Image from Bulb Fiction 

Even if some CFLs are collected and the mercury extracted, this process is very complicated, energy-consuming and hardly cost-effective. 

As of July 2006, mercury is one of the substances restricted in the EU (with exception for some products such as CFLs). This means that even if mercury-containing CFLs can still be imported, the mercury cannot be exported back to China for re-use in new CFLs but must be deposited as toxic waste in the EU. 

On January 19th, 2013, the UN Minamata Convention agreed on a treaty to phase out mercury household products, including some CFLs.

The CFL cannot be considered a green replacement and is not recommended for home use. 


4. LED Lamps

Low-lumen lamps (= the vast majority of LED bulbs currently available for the home market) are not worth replacing for energy or economical reasons, as warm-white LEDs of half decent quality currently cost a small fortune and give so little light of such mediocre light quality, as to be useless for illumination and decoration both.

Even the very production of complex-technology low-lumen home LED bulbs for the home market, shipped all the way from China in dirty oil tankers, is a complete waste of precious resources by using up the world supply of hard-to-extract rare earth metals - which should be saved for products that actually make a difference.

Philips L-Prize LED autopsy from earthled.com

An LED lamp consists of anode, cathode, semiconductor crystal, ballast, socket transformer, capacitor, controller, heat sink, LED module (and in retrofit LED lamps also a bulb and a metal base).

May contain (semiconductor minerals can vary depending on colour):
  • Soda-lime glass (if frosted: clay or silica coating inside)
  • PMMA, PBT or PET (with brominated polymer & antimony oxide
  • Aluminum (heat sinks and housings)  
  • Nickel-plated brass (lamp bases)  
  • Bauxite (alumina for glass and aluminum for adapters) - mined in Australia, China, Brazil, India, Guinea, Jamaica, Russia, Venezuela, Suriname, Kazakhstan, Guyana, Greece
  • Copper (adapters and wiring) - mined in Chile, United States, Peru, China, Australia, Russia, Indonesia, Canada, Zambia, Poland, Mexico
  • Lead (adapters and glass) - mined in China, Australia, United States, Peru, Mexico, Canada, India, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Ireland, South Africa
  • Nickel (adapters) - mined in Russia, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, New Caledonia, Philippines, Columbia, China, Cuba, Brazil, Botswana, South Africa, Dominican Republic, Greece, Venezuela, Spain
  • Tin (adapters; glass coatings) - Mined in China, Indonesia, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, Congo-Kinshasa, Vietnam, Malaysia, Australia, Russia
  • Arsenic (semiconductor chips) - mined in China, Chile, Morocco, Peru, Kazakhstan, Russia, Belgium, Mexico
  • Boron minerals (semiconductor chips) - mined in United States, Turkey, Argentina, Chile, Russia, Peru, China, Bolivia, Kazakhstan
  • Gallium (semiconductor chips) - mined in China, Germany, Kazakhstan, Ukraine
  • Indium (semiconductor chips) - mined in China, Republic of Korea, Japan, Canada, Belgium, Russia, Peru, Brazil
  • Phosphate rock (semiconductor chips) - mined in China, United States, Morocco andWestern Sahara, Russia, Tunisia, Jordan, Brazil, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Australia, South Africa, Canada
  • Selenium (semiconductor chips) - mined in Japan, Belgium, Canada, Russia, Chile, Philippines, Finland, Peru, Sweden, India
  • Zinc (adapters; semiconductors) - mined in China, Peru, Australia, United States, Canada, India, Kazakhstan, Ireland, Mexico
  • Barite (barium/aluminum oxide for phosphor) - mined in China, India, United States, Morocco, Iran, Turkey, Mexico, Kazakhstan, Vietnam, Germany, Russia, Algeria, United Kingdom
  • Manganese (for phosphor) - mined in South Africa, Australia, China, Gabon, Brazil, India, Ukraine and Mexico
  • Rare earth oxides (e.g. lanthanum or yttrium for phosphor) - mined in China, India, Brazil

Mining in general, and for rare earth metals in particular, is often very harmful to the environment (New York Times and other reports). So the less material a product contains, the better for the environment.

Abandoned mine in Guyun Village in China
Image: Thomas Lee, New York Times

January 16th, 2013 
Both compact fluorescents and LED lightbulbs qualify as hazardous waste under California and EPA protocols 
New research from scientists in California and South Korea, published yesterday inEnvironmental Science and Technology, shows that while compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) and LEDs have better energy efficiency than incandescent bulbs, they compare unfavorably when you look at their potential toxicity (at the end-of-life phase) and resource depletion. (...) 
Because the bulbs have very different expected lifetimes, they “normalized” their data on resource depletion and toxicity potential by using data for fifty incandescents, five CFLs, and one LED bulb. Even after normalizing their calculations, the team found that CFLs have from three to 26 times higher resource depletion and toxicity potential than incandescents and LED bulbs have two to three times higher potential. 

Both CFLs and LEDs have higher levels of metals than incandescents have, except for Tungsten (in the filaments) and nickel:

  • CFLs and LEDs require more metal-containing components that supply power to light the bulbs
  • CFLs and LED require one or more circuit boards (adding antimony, copper, lead, iron)
  • CFLs and LEDs use copper in the coils and zinc as protective coatings to stainless steel
  • CFLs contain mercury, phosphorous, and yttrium
  • LED bulbs include a heat sink to dissipate the heat (adding aluminum)
  • LED chips include antimony and gallium
  • LEDs use barium and chromium in stainless steel, and phosphorous, silver and gold elsewhere
With so many metals used, including some critical metals, we need to see more recycling and less trashing of all these bulbs. 
CFLs and LED bulbs flunk hazardous waste test

All three bulbs were tested to see if they should be classified as hazardous waste, under the protocols established by Federal EPA (the TCLP test)  and California Department of Toxic Substances Control (the TTLC methodology).  The CFLs and LED bulbs were both determined to be hazardous waste, but the incandescent bulbs were not. Both the CFLs and LED bulbs far exceeded the federal TCLP levels for lead and the California TTLC level for copper. The CFLs also far exceeded the California levels for zinc. While the CFLs measured just below the California level for mercury, the authors state that the methods used for sampling did not capture the mercury that could have vaporized when the CFL bulb was broken. (This may mean that the primary concern could be the exposure to whomever breaks, or cleans up a broken CFL bulb, even more than what happens in the trash.) 

The study evaluated the hazard based toxicity potential (on a per bulb basis), using two different methodologies. Both showed the CFLs and LEDs have higher hazard potential than incandescents because of copper, aluminum and zinc.  CFLs and LEDs also had higher scores for human and eco-toxicity potentials. “The CFLs exhibit at least 2.5 and 1.3 times higher human- and eco-toxicity potentials than the LEDs, respectively, and the CFLs and LEDs exhibit at least 2 orders of magnitude higher potentials than the incandescent bulb,” according to the report.

But what about the electricity?

It is true that CFLs and LEDs give a little more light per watt - a simple quality-for-quantity trade-off. 

• But, as consumer tests keep showing, often not as much as stated on the package.

• Many also don't last as long as claimed. Or have to be replaced before they burn out, due to losing brightness with age. 

• If a lamp has mediocre power quality (which most CFLs and LEDs do) they can use up to twice as much power as their marked watts. Private customers are not yet charged for this discrepancy (as Public, Commercial and Industrial customers are) but if more CFLs and LEDs are sold to the Home market, utilities will have to raise electricity prices for everyone in order to compensate themselves for the loss. 
Power factors below 1.0 require a utility to generate more than the minimum volt-amperes necessary to supply the power (watts). This increases generation and transmission costs. 
“Utilities may impose penalties on customers who do not have good power factors on their overall buildings.” - Sylvania
• If you live in a climate zone with long, cold winters and use incandescent or halogen lamps indoors, the heat generated as a side-effect of giving top quality light, helps create a warm indoor climate. On average over the year, 50-60% of that heat is effective in lowering heating costs from radiators, according to CanadianSwedish and British studies.

Left is a a net effect of only a few watts per lamp. For which you get a poorer quality light at home, degradation the power grid and which creates many times as much pollution to produce, transport and recycle (or deposit as toxic waste). Plus indirect costs such as negative health effects.

CFL & LED lamps also do not spread the light effectively in an incandescent-mimicking bulb shape, but work best in other shapes more suitable for their specific technology. So they are complementary technologies, best used in the Public and Commercial sectors, not good replacements for home lamps. Only a more effective incandescent lamp (e.g. xenon-filled or IR-filtered) can replace a standard incandescent lamp and produce exactly the same light.

And, as mentioned above, the potential savings achievable in the Home sector (by any technology) are negligible, as home lighting uses such a minute sliver of the energy pie to begin with.  

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