Compact florescent lamps get a bad rap because they contain mercury which gets released into the air when a lamp breaks. However, in America where we make the majority of our electricity from coal, even if you manage to break every CFL you use at the end of its life (which is likely at the landfill if you throw them away), you still release less mercury into the air than using incandescents. Of course, it’s hardly a fair comparison at this point because incandescents will be illegal soon anyway.
And, because CFLs are theoretically recyclable, there’s no reason that the mercury in them should be released. We currently only recycle 10% of CFLs in the US because we apparently enjoy numbness in the hands and feet, general muscle weakness, narrowing of the field of vision, damage to hearing and speech, insanity, paralysis, coma, and death, but other countries have higher rates demonstrating that it is possible if you’re not already too brain damaged to do it.
I know what you’re thinking: “What about LEDs? They’re even more efficient than CFLs, they have a longer life, and they don’t release neurotoxins into the air when they break.” Well, not so fast, Sparky. The problems with LEDs right now are 1) because of their longer life the total cost of ownership is comparable to CFLs, but they cost 15 to 30X more than CFLs up front and 2) while very efficient LEDs have been produced in the lab, the LEDs currently for sale are slightly less efficient than CFLs.
For the moment CFLs are still the best way to go. There is no longer any flicker or hum, and if you try you can find them with color rendering similar to incandescents. Look for a color temperature of 2700 K. To find out where you can recycle CFLs in your area go to Earth911 and search for “fluorescent light bulb.” Ikea and Home Depot take them, and there are lots of mail in programs.
:: EPA, 2002