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Energy Efficiency

Published on September 14th, 2009 | by Dave Dempsey

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Mercury-Laden CFLs to Overwhelm Minnesota's Recycling Program

September 14th, 2009 by  


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A surge in the number of mercury-bearing energy-efficient light bulbs in use in Minnesota is expected to overwhelm recycling programs in the next few years and there’s no plan yet on how to recycle more of them.

Fluorescent light bulbs use only one-fourth as much energy per unit of light produced as incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer. One CFL bulb contains 5 milligrams of mercury, about one-fifth the amount in a watch battery.

The number of recycled compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) available for recycling in the state is expected to rise from 346,000 in 2008 to 2,419.000 in 2011 as federal and state energy efficiency mandates kick in. Minnesota’s 2008 CFL recycling rate was one of the highest among the states at an estimated 37%, and much of the Gopher State has nearby recycling options.

But many of the state’s consumers aren’t aware that CFLs need to be recycled to contain the mercury. While 73.1% of the state’s households use at least one CFL, only 39% of respondents to a survey knew that recycling of the bulbs is required by Minnesota law.

Local household hazardous waste (HHW) collection programs receive the majority of Minnesota’s recycled CFLs, with home improvement and hardware stores taking back the bulk of the rest. Because most of the local HHW programs are largely funded by county taxes, it’s unclear whether or how funding to expand them will be made available.

When asked how to fund expanded programs, 55% of surveyed citizens said they’d prefer to do it through an increase in the price of the bulbs. Another 30% would prefer to pay through recycling fees. An increase of 50 cents in the price of bulbs would still leave 80% recycling the bulbs, but a $1.50 recycling cost would cut that rate to 52%.

Industry observers say the CFL recycling problem will likely be “time-limited.” After CFL use peaks, replacement technologies, including LED lights and other lower-mercury lighting technologies are expected to claim a rising share toward the middle part of the next decade.

State Rep. Melissa Hortman introduced legislation in 2009 to require CFL manufacturers selling bubs in the state to create comprehensive recycling programs, but the bill didn’t get a hearing. Maine became the first state to require CFL recycling by law this year.

Image Credit: City of Rosemount, Minnesota






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About the Author

Dave Dempsey is a writer active in conservation for more than 25 years. A frequent freelance contributor and newsweekly columnist, Dave is the author of four award-winning books on the environment and a biography of Michigan’s longest-serving Governor, William Milliken. A native of Michigan who now lives in the Twin Cities metro in Minnesota, Dave served as environmental advisor to Michigan Governor James J. Blanchard from 1983-89. President Clinton appointed him to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission in 1994. Dave has also held numerous administrative, policy and consulting positions for nonprofit conservation and environmental organizations in Michigan and Minnesota. He was both policy director and executive director at the Michigan Environmental Council and Great Lakes policy consultant for Clean Water Action. Dave has a bachelor of arts degree from Western Michigan University and a master’s degree in natural resource development from Michigan State University, and has served as an adjunct university instructor at MSU in environmental policy.



  • htl

    every incandescent bulb cost you about $25 a year in electricity cost!

    cfls life will vary depending on the manufacturer. Just because they are more efficient doesn’t mean it is ok to still have them on all day long. they only last if you follow the manufactures instructions. They don’t cost $15-20 for three. Go to ace hardware and get them to less then a buck! And cfls are a great step but if you don’t like them then just conserve electricity. That doesn’t cost you a thing!

  • htl

    every incandescent bulb cost you about $25 a year in electricity cost!

    cfls life will vary depending on the manufacturer. Just because they are more efficient doesn’t mean it is ok to still have them on all day long. they only last if you follow the manufactures instructions. They don’t cost $15-20 for three. Go to ace hardware and get them to less then a buck! And cfls are a great step but if you don’t like them then just conserve electricity. That doesn’t cost you a thing!

    • al

      What I would like to know and cant find out is the true cost of the cfl bulb. I think I have seen it costs 3 times to to manufacture(now all done in China whereas the incandescent manufactured here) but how much does the state pay to dispose of the bulb (it is toxic waste after all) . Are we the taxpayers subsidizing a $10 / $20 bulb and think we are a good deal because we save some on our electric bill .

      • Bob_Wallace

        A 100 incandescent replacement uses 23 watts. You’re saving 77 watts per hour.

        Assume 4 hours a day, 365 a year, and you’re saving 112.4 kWh per year.
        At the national average of 12.5 cents/kWh that’s $14 per year. Plus the cost of the 2 incandescent bulbs you didn’t have to purchase. How about we call it $15 per year?

        That CFL is going to last at least 10 years (if you purchase a quality brand – I’ve got some over 15 years old). So $150+ – the cost of the bulb and recycling.

        Plus there’s the coal that won’t get burned which means that there will be fewer coal pollution health problems to be treated with your tax dollars.
        And less mercury on our land and in our water which means fewer developmental problems with children, so less tax dollars spent.

        I don’t know about you, but even if it cost us $25 to recycle a CFL then I think it a very reasonable price to pay.

        Of course you have the option to avoid CFLs and mercury and just use LEDs. Most likely there won’t be any CFLs in our stores in five years or so, LEDs will replace them.

  • Brian

    The problem with CFLs is that they don’t last anywhere near as long as they’re advertised to last. Every single person I know who bought into them (including myself) says the same thing: They only last a couple of years and then burn out, nowhere near the 7 years advertised on the package. I don’t mind replacing a bulb every couple of years for less than a dollar, but when they charge $15-$20 for a pack of two or three, it’s just not worth it. That’s not even considering the obnoxious “warm-up” time that most of them have and the onerous recycling requirements. I’m really hoping LEDs become affordable soon because I’m sick of CFL.

  • Brian

    The problem with CFLs is that they don’t last anywhere near as long as they’re advertised to last. Every single person I know who bought into them (including myself) says the same thing: They only last a couple of years and then burn out, nowhere near the 7 years advertised on the package. I don’t mind replacing a bulb every couple of years for less than a dollar, but when they charge $15-$20 for a pack of two or three, it’s just not worth it. That’s not even considering the obnoxious “warm-up” time that most of them have and the onerous recycling requirements. I’m really hoping LEDs become affordable soon because I’m sick of CFL.

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