Greenwashing Light Bulbs


I’m Paul Wheaton. calls me “hardcore green”.

I feel the need to mention this because I am, as an environmentalist, about to make a stand against …. “environmentalists”.

Not environmentalists. But all “environmentalists”.

I think that being an environmentalist is really about being a good neighbor. About not pooping in your neighbor’s drinking water. About being against pollution.

About clean air, clean water, clean food and clean soil for yourself and all your neighbors.

Being an “environmentalist” is either parroting what the greenwashing tells you, or … even worse, actually believing the greenwashing, then standing up and fighting for “green” that isn’t green at all.

The object propelling the greatest greenwashing scheme of all time is the CFL. The greenwashing is so thorough, that many people will call themselves an “environmentalist” for no reason other than the fact that they have, indeed, purchased CFLs.

At this point, I wish to point out that the whole CFL thing is really not my crusade. On the other hand, so many people want me to carry their pro-CFL propaganda, and they won’t listen to my alternative position, that I’ve felt compelled to write something.

As I’ve personally witnessed so many people put such large portions of their well intentioned energy into defending the CFL, I’ve felt compelled to put more effort into getting my writing on this topic published.

And when the national news reports that “environmentalists” are defending CFLs, I feel slighted and feel the need to shout from the rooftops that, at the very least, environmentalists are divided on this. I need to get this CFL thing behind me so I can focus on far more important things. And I would like to see people that care about what is good for all of us to stop defending something so awful. A very large book can be written about all the lies, spin and shenanigans that have gone on surrounding the CFL, but I’m going to try to just make a quick summary.

1) If a CFL is used for three or more hours every time, then the lifespan of the light would probably be close to what is written on the box. For that same CFL to be used somewhere where the light would be on for an average of 30 seconds (like in a closet or a hallway), the lifespan is shortened by about 99%. Sometimes even more. So a CFL that is labeled to last 10,000 hours would actually last only about 100 hours. A lot of lightbulb use in the house is for a few minutes (bathroom or bedroom) and it is a minority of light bulbs in the house are on for more than three hours at a time. Of course, this assumes a house where the people turn off lights that are not in use. For a house where all of the lightbulbs in the house are CFLs, I predict that the average lifespan would be less than 1000 hours.

2) All CFL bulbs contain mercury.

This is the pollutant that leads the FDA to suggest not eating tuna more than once a week. In 2008, the EPA released a data sheet explaining how the amount of mercury pollution from the CFL paled in comparison to the amount of mercury pollution caused by the extra energy use of incandescent lights from coal power plants. But when you explore the details of the report, you can see where the numbers were fiddled with in several ways. Most notably, the 4mg (average) per CFL was reduced to 0.6mg because only one type of pollution was considered.

Further, the comparison was for 8000 hours of lighting time with the claim that the incandescent generated 5.8mg mercury pollution due to coal power plants exuding that level of pollution into the air for the amount of power. If we do nothing more than put the real number back, it comes out to be about the same for both CFL and incandescent. Replace the coal plant with wind energy and the incandescent instantly drops to zero. And if we say the lifespan of the CFL is 800 hours, then CFL on wind power is is 40mg. When I unravelled a few other shenanigans, I came out with 67.4 for the CFLs – 112 times dirtier than claimed.

3) Each light bulb package now lists the number of lumens (a measurement of light) that each light bulbs puts off. For incandescent, this is pretty straightforward since the amount of light put out is very consistant. What is printed on the CFL box is the highest amount of light given at the optimal point of light use. Two things that a lot of people don’t know about CFLs is:

3.1) they start off 40% to 65% dimmer and reach their highest brightness in one to three minutes of each use.

3.2) as the CFLs get older, they lose brightness. Usually, they lose about 20% of their brightness about 10% into their lifespan, and will have lost about 30% of their brightness near the end of their lifespan.

4) Many people are getting sick when they are in the same room as a “properly functioning” CFL. And I’m not talking about just a few. My research suggests that about 35% of the population will be sick near a CFL. The most common symtoms are headaches, skin problems and lack of concentration. Most people feel sick and don’t know it is the CFL that is causing it.

I wonder how many “environmentalists” are currently seriously ill from the CFLs that they protect. If you have been feeling poorly, or have been having a hard time concentrating, try switching to incandescent lights for a week and see if you feel better and more productive.

5) CFLs are subsidized by many different government offices and even by the power companies. So the price for the CFL appears to be low because everybody is being forced to pay for it with higher taxes and higher utility bills. They claim to be doing it in the name of conservation. But if that were true, I think they would subsidize clothes lines – you can save far more money in a year with a clothes line than the amount you could possibly save with CFLs even if they worked as well as claimed. Before incandescent bulbs were banned in Australia, CFLs were typically $1.50 per bulb. As the subsidies are being taken away, the price has now risen to $8 per bulb and is still rising. Predictions are that it will stop at about $12 per bulb.

When it comes to saving household energy, the amount I spend on electricity for lighting is already well under a dollar per month. And that’s with incandescent lights.

Three times more than everything else combined is heating people. Focus there for the biggest energy savings. For that, I present: cutting 87% off of the electric heat bill using micro electric heatersrocket stove mass heater; wofati eco building.

There is much more to this issue. It is a massive topic made into a gut wrenching topic – because good people believed the greenwashing that was printed on the box.

For more information, please see my full article on light bulbs.




BIO: Paul Wheaton is is the tyrannical ruler of two on-line communities. One is about permaculture and one is about software engineering. There is even one for Missoula. Paul has written several permaculture articles starting with one on lawn care that he presented at the MUD Project 17 years ago, including articles on raising chickenscast iron and diatomaceous earth. Paul also regularly uploadspermaculture videos and permaculture podcasts. In his spare time, Paul has plans for world domination and is currently shopping for a hollowed out volcano in the Missoula area, with good submarine access.

See all of Paul’s contributions to MakeitMissoula on this Blog Homepage here.