Green light bulbs: Not such a bright idea

Gloomy, pricey and not even very eco-friendly. With only weeks until the big switch-over, are we really ready for green light bulbs? Josh Sims reports
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Some think of it as a conspiracy: traditional light bulb manufacturers urging a switch to the new generation of pricey, sophisticated CFLs, or compact fluorescent light bulbs, in a bid to combat the competition of cut-price incandescent bulbs coming from makers in the Far East. Or retailers only too keen to usher in a new, higher-margin product with green credentials. Consumers, meanwhile, have tried an early version of an energy-saving bulb and found it wanting: not simply because of the expense – good value in the long run, maybe, but up to 20 times pricier than a traditional bulb – but also finding the bulbs outsized and aesthetically unappealing, their light dim with an unsettling flickering effect. Some people have not forgotten the terrible energy-saving bulbs introduced in the 1970s and will need convincing to try them again.

Yet, like them or not, CFLs will soon be all that you can buy. January next year sees the launch of a government-backed plan to phase out high-wattage incandescent bulbs altogether. And switching to eco-bulbs is so often cited as one of the first, and most easy steps anyone can take in making a contribution to the sustainability effort, that having any of Thomas Edison's old contraptions is becoming socially unacceptable.

The case against the traditional bulb is firm: it's antique technology and 85 per cent of the energy it consumes disappears as heat. And the case in favour of CFLs seems equally firm. They work not with the old filament but by containing phosphors, compounds that are phosphorescent, giving off light without heat and using some 60 per cent less electricity than standard bulbs to do so. If a standard bulb lasts some 1,000 hours (a year on average), the CFL lasts between six and 15 times longer, cutting carbon emissions.

"The idea of the energy-saving bulb has gone all round the world and there is a general acceptance that they are better for the environment," says Matt Prescott, director of energy-efficiency campaign group Ban the Bulb. "And yet I do get a mixed bag of responses to CFLs. It's a different kind of light, no doubt, but useable. CFLs are not perfect but we can't wait for them to be so before encouraging change."

However, CFLs may not as bright an idea as is generally accepted. They are not only more complex products, comprising circuitry, so their manufacture is invariably less energy-efficient than the old-fashioned variety of bulb, but they also contain mercury – about 5mg per bulb. That may not be enough to cause personal harm if a bulb is broken, but it does mean that a CFL is not the entirely green product it is sometimes made out to be: in the US, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued special guidelines for their treatment at the end of their life cycle. They should be handled with the same caution applied to an old car battery: sealed in plastic and taken to a dedicated site for recycling. IKEA is to date the only retailer offering to take back old CFLs for recycling. Throw a dead bulb into a bin and invariably it will end up in a landfill, where the mercury will possibly be free to enter the soil or local water courses and thus the food chain.

"There's a fair amount to scare people off CFLs – and mercury is a hazardous substance that people are rightly concerned about," says Thaddeus Dell, a local authority environment officer and founder of new green lighting supplier, the Best Bulb Co. "But taking CFLs' whole life cycle into account, their environmental impact still doesn't compare with that of tungsten bulbs – the tungsten and lead in those can't be easily recycled either."

Even one of the most basic claims – that, unlike the incandescent bulb, the eco-bulb wastes less energy emitting heat – may only seem a benefit if you live in a temperate climate. In a cold one, that lost heat will be replaced by turning up the thermostat. Those who bought early CFLs found they needed to be kept on longer than the old-style bulbs to reach maximum efficiency and run more or less continuously to maximise their lifespan.

And then there are the inconveniences that may just be the cost of greening up: most CFLs don't work with dimmers and, because they need ventilation, many others can't be used in closed-light fixtures. While most new lighting design can accommodate eco-bulbs, some homes' light fittings won't take them at all, so will have to be replaced. The market also offers CFLs of markedly different quality standards. Frequently none of the key information – the bulb's mercury content or how to dispose of it, the intensity of the light it will offer or, for that matter, the energy savings it may give – appears on packaging. No wonder consumers are bewildered.

"Generally what's available now is bad," says Caspar Thykier, director of communications agency Shop and founder of eco-bulb company Glowb, which launches in January and is one of the smaller companies seeking to make buying an eco-bulb less of a chore. "For all their faults, energy-saving bulbs are the green option. But the perception of them is very poor. Many people who have tried one don't like it. In addition, the big players have not pulled their weight to get the right messages across."

What we are dealing with here, says product and lighting designer Tom Dixon, who this year unveiled a public installation made from eco-bulbs, is a product still being refined. "In terms of energy consumption by CFLs the figures do speak for themselves," he says. "Low-energy lighting has never had a strong name in design. But lighting is technology-driven and progress happens all the time."

Certainly CFLs are making advances. They are still heavy relative to incandescents but similar in size and shape and distribute light as evenly. The mercury content is dropping too, to about half what it was just a few years ago. The flickering problem is generally old news, too – early CFLs flickered at a rate of 50 times per second, newer ones at 50,000, impossible for the human eye to detect. And Osram, one of the larger bulb manufacturers, has just launched the first CFL dimmable bulb.

"Things are happening very quickly," says Osram's retail marketing manager Lee Dryden. "Too often perception is based on a purchase made a few years ago. That means we have a few myths that need to be bust."

The good light guide

* Buying a CFL? "Avoid the cheap and nasty versions – they really are bad," advises the Lighting Association's chief executive, Keven Verdun. "And don't pay out extra for a bulb with more than about an eight-year life span. The technology will have advanced by then."

Indeed, CFLs soon may not be the only "green" lighting option. Compact halogen bulbs are providers of a rich, warm light but, at the moment, are only 10 per cent more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs. But LEDs, or light-emitting diodes, would herald a new era in electronic lighting. LEDs are compact and strong and current designs are already 80 per cent more energy-efficient than CFLs. They can be programmed to light in different colours or sequences, embedded into walls, ceilings or furniture – as product designers such as Naoto Fukasawa and Ingo Maurer are already doing with experimental pieces.

The downside is they emit a lot of heat and are too expensive to make for a mass-market item. So far. Osram, which is working on LED technology, reckons a domestic LED light may be on the market in five years. Others have suggested an approach that focuses less on the bulbs than the way they are used: cut down usage with wider and domestic use of sensors that switch off lights when nobody is in the room.