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Stage Lighting: A basic technology manual.

CFL's and the environment

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The idea that saving the environment can be successfully achieved via fitting energy saving light bulbs may be fundamentally flawed. The concept of the compact fluorescent lamp not take into account the broader implications of an energy saving measure.


CFL’s otherwise known as low-energy lamps have been hailed as one of the answers to global warming. But is this so? In this document I set out many of the myths and fictions of this subject.


Do they save power? Well they might reduce the amount of electricity flowing at your meter, thus in the short term at least saving you a little money. However they don’t make much difference to the amount of power produced at the power station for two reasons:


Firstly, the amount that light bulbs in the home produce is about 3% of the total energy used in the UK and is insignificant in the big picture of the lighting power used by industry. Thus the proportion of power saved is vanishingly small.


Secondly, these lamps , especially the lower cost ones, can produce a great deal of what is known as harmonic distortion. This is basically “electrical dirt’ produced by the lamps themselves which is fed back through the electrical system. The effect of this is to counteract and make useless some of the power produced at the power station. The extra current is about 15 milliamps per watt, so useless power needs to be produced at the power station to compensate for these losses.

Where there are only a few of these on a circuit, then the effect is small. But when many millions are in use them, the effect at the power station is to  put a greater load on the electricity demand. ( “reactive’ or ‘apparent” power’). Residential utility meters measure only active power, so utility companies can't charge home-owners for reactive power, even though it costs them money to transport it over transmission lines. Obviously the power utilities are not going to stand for that for long, so expect to see your energy bills rise to compensate.


A low energy light bulb has a more complex manufacturing process than a  traditional light bulb, I would suggest that the energy saved during its use will have actually been spent during the four main stages of its life;

1 pre-manufacturing of all the extra raw materials,

2 actual manufacturing,

3 profitable sales stages and

4 profitable recycling stage



  • When comparing a 20 watt CFL with a 100watt GLS, the light output of the former is not as good as that of the latter. The average light output of a compliant 100watt is 1330 lumens, but 'Which' magazine determined that a best-buy CFL is only 1152 lumens.
  • The colour of the light produced by a CFL is such that colours are not rendered accurately, especially in the cheaper versions. This may lead to mistakes being made in for example, colour matching when dyeing hair or fine arts.



TUNGSTEN LAMPS CONTAIN: glass, brass. ceramics, tungsten, a small amount of  halides  iodine). That’s it. Every part is recyclable. If by chance they are put into landfill, its not good, as it wont rot down, but neither is it actively harmful.


CFL’S CONTAIN: vaporous methyl-mercury gases, metallic mercury, (approx 5mg) beryllium, cadmium, phosphorus and phosphates glass, ( twice as thick as tungsten lamps), plastic, circuit boards, copper, many trace metals in the electronic components such as germanium, and non-recyclable plastics.

 Virtually none of this is recyclable.  Some of the mercury is reclaimable for re-use, but hardly anything else. If it gets into landfill, the  vaporous methyl-mercury can get into the food chain more readily than inorganic elemental mercury released directly from a broken bulb or even coal-fired power plants.


Mercury is probably best-known for its effects on the nervous system. The Mad Hatter in the classic children's book "Alice in Wonderland" was based on 19th-century hat makers who were continually exposed to the toxin. Mercury can also damage the kidneys and liver, and in sufficient quantities can cause death.

Environmental considerations during mining

Mercury comes from mining, reprocessing of ores from other mines and also from refining natural gas. It is exceptionally harmful to the environment where it is mined (Guatemala, Slovenia and Peru among other places) and the health of the people  involved. The forest clearances and strip mining deform the landscape, introduce pollutants such as sulphur, mercury and salt into the biosphere  Most pernicious of all is the toxic nature of the mercury the often exploited and underpaid labourers  are mining. They suffer the common diseases and injuries associated with the industry such as lung cancer, ischemic heart diseases, suicide and nephritis-nephrosis, silicosis and other respiratory disease and the inevitable broken limbs.


Environmental considerations during use

Using CFL’s, central heating has to be run a little longer in the winter or the thermostat turned up a fraction to make up for the shortfall in heat produced.


Environmental considerations during disposal

At present a staggering 60 per cent of CFL’s are disposed of into landfill, storing up huge problems for later generations. Recycling facilities are largely non existent at a domestic level, most local councils insisting that individual lamps be delivered to their recycling centre, with consequent offset of the fuel used to take them there and from there to a registered mercury recovery firm, perhaps many miles away.





CFL lamps which are being pushed big-time by the manufacturers are  a short term fix to a long term problem. New technologies are emerging which may provide domestic light in an efficient manner, such as light –emitting diodes  currently four times as efficient as incandescents, manufacturers are aiming for 80% efficiency by the end of the decade, which would represent a 16-fold improvement on the traditional bulb. They are easily dimmable; produce a spectrum of light which nearer approximates daylight and boast a high power factor with little harmonic distortion.


Also on the horizon are Litrospheres,  a beta radiation light source which has a half-light life of 12 years.


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