For a long time, “going green” was used by hippies and tree-huggers. However, greening has become more mainstream and more necessary for businesses to remain competitive. Your business and the environment are more closely linked than you may think. Some businesses have more obvious effects on the environment than others, but all of us have some effect on the environment through what we purchase, how much energy and water we use, and many other factors. By improving the environmental performance of your business, you help to ensure a clean and healthy environment for future generations as well as foster a healthy business future.

There are many ways to improve the environmental impact of your company, but one that is easy and not terribly expensive to implement is the use of compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) in place of the traditional incandescent bulbs. There are many reasons to switch from incandescent lamps to CFLs. CFLs are about three to four times more efficient than incandescent lamps. This translates to a decrease in the amount of energy needed to light the lamp, a decrease in the cost to illuminate the same area and less carbon dioxide (CO2) produced when making the needed energy. Although CFLs are more costly to purchase, they will last eight to 10 times longer than any incandescent. So, although the lamps cost more, you will be buying fewer of them. You will also be spending less on your electric bill.

Today’s CFLs are vastly improved compared to early designs. Major problems that hindered adoption, such as a slow start time and a constant humming sound, have been solved. The CFL of today consists of three major pieces: a lamp, a ballast and an adapter. The lamp is the glass portion of a light bulb that most people think of, but it has a more specific definition in a CFL. The lamp is a combination of electrodes, gases and other electrical devices designed to provide artificial light through the conversion from electricity. The ballast is used to convert electrical current into the appropriate voltage, amperage and waveform necessary to operate the lamp. The screw base of the light bulb is the adapter. In the United States, the Edison base is most commonly used, but other forms can be found, especially in other countries.

Since a CFL is really just a different configuration of a fluorescent lamp, it contains small amounts of mercury as a vapor. Most CFLs available today contain 3 to 5 mg of mercury per lamp, but some brands contain as little as 1 mg. Mercury is considered a poison, but there is virtually no threat to a person’s health when the lamp is intact. Problems arise when CFLs are broken, put in landfills and waste incinerators, or crushed in the back of a garbage truck. The mercury is released and can contribute to air and water pollution. However, many authorities on the subject agree that this potential release of mercury contributes less mercury to the environment than using incandescents because CFLs use less electricity. In fact, coal-fired power plants are the biggest source of mercury emissions.

To help prevent these releases, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends that CFLs be recycled. This has been problematic because most municipalities don’t have the capabilities to collect and process recycled CFLs. Some large retailers (such as Home Depot and IKEA) have or are working toward providing their customers with a CFL recycling dropoff at their stores.

The EPA has set out procedures to be used to clean up a broken CFL. The complete list can be found at www.epa.gov/hg/spills, but the organization also has a series of things to never do after a CFL breaks.

• Never use a vacuum to clean up mercury. The vacuum will put mercury into the air and increase your exposure.
• Never use a broom to clean up mercury. It will break the mercury into smaller pieces and spread it even further.
• Never put mercury down a drain. It can cause pollution to your septic tank or sewage treatment plant.
• Never wash clothing or any item that has come in contact with mercury in a washing machine. It may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage.
• Never walk around if your shoes may be contaminated with mercury.

Although there are very real, if minor, risks associated with using CFLs at your business or at your home, the benefits outweigh the dangers. Lower long-term cost for lamps, and lower electric bills are really enough of an incentive for most people. And, when you add in the benefit to the environment, everyone wins.


KELLY is a safety and health specialist with Intec, a safety consulting, training and publishing firm that offers on-site assistance and produces manuals, training videos and software for contractors. She can be reached at 800.745.4818 and dkelly@intecweb.com. Joe O’Connor edited this article.