Change a Bulb, Change the World

Ed. note: Twice a week, we’ll run a ‘Best of TreeHugger’ post, featuring a rundown of the best ideas, stories, products and people that TreeHugger has covered in the past.

One of the quickest, easiest changes you can make to help the planet and your home be a little greener is as simple as changing a light bulb. In fact, that’s it: change a light bulb, replacing your incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs). They use about 70% less energy than the traditional incandescent bulb, while giving off the same amount of light and lasting up to 10 times longer. How does that help? If your home requires less energy, that means less energy has to be produced, and when the vast majority of the energy in our country is produced by burning coal and other dirty fossil fuels, that’s a very good thing. So good, in fact, that both California [] and Australia [] have banned the outdated incandescent in favor of CFLs.

But can one bulb really make a difference? If every household in the U.S. replaced just one incandescent light bulb with an energy-efficient CFL, it would eliminate the equivalent of the emissions created by one million cars []. And that’s just one bulb; most homes have fifteen, twenty, thirty or more. A global switch to efficient lighting systems would trim the world’s electricity bill by nearly one-tenth []. The carbon dioxide emissions saved by such a switch would, it concludes, dwarf cuts so far achieved by adopting wind and solar power. Wow. But that’s not all; though more expensive to buy, CFLs will save you cash on your energy bill by using less and lasting longer than incandescents, so when the entire lifecycle is considered, CFLs win in a landslide.

So we’ve established that this is a good thing, but how do they work, and how can we maximize their use? TreeHugger has answers [] for these questions and more, including where to get them. Speaking of selling bulbs, would you believe Wal-Mart is aiming to sell one million of the bulbs in a year []? It’s true, and they’re even on track to do it []. There’s a new campaign in the US to track nationwide bulb use at [], so you can keep up with the Joneses.

CFL skeptics point to the small amount of mercury in each bulb that can escape if they’re broken, but the myth that CFLs contain more mercury than incandescents is actually untrue. In an ironic twist, compact fluorescent bulbs are responsible for less mercury contamination [] than the incandescent bulbs they replaced, even though incandescents don’t contain any mercury. The highest source of mercury in America’s air and water results from the burning of fossil fuels, such as coal, at utilities that supply electricity. Since a compact fluorescent bulb uses 75 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb, and lasts at least six times longer, it is responsible for far less mercury pollution in the long run. A coal-burning power plant will emit four times more mercury to produce the electricity for an incandescent bulb than for a compact fluorescent.

So, as you can see, changing a bulb nets a big payoff from a small investment; for more on greening your lighting, we recommend How to Green Your Lighting [], one of TreeHugger’s many guides to greening your life.