A Quick Guide to Eco-Friendly Light Bulbs - Public Goods

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A Quick Guide to Eco-Friendly Light Bulbs

Light bulbs are unsung heroes in the fight to reduce energy consumption.

lightbulbs hanging in a restaurant

The evolution of the light bulb serves as evidence of how great changes can happen over time.

If you are older than 30, you probably remember a time when buying light bulbs was as easy as picking a wattage from four options: 40, 60, 75 and 100. You might also know that buying light bulbs has gotten increasingly complicated.

Today there are many different shapes, sizes, types, symbols, letters, numbers, lumens, etc. Facing this wide array of choices in the light bulb aisle of your local store can be daunting.

When it comes to light bulbs, traditional choices continue to be available alongside modern ones. This is a unique quandary you would not face in, for instance, a cell phone store with rotary or flip phones promoted next to the newest smartphones. But when you browse the light bulb options available in the single aisle of your local store or in many online marketplaces, you are faced with the full evolution of light bulbs in a small place, from incandescent to LED.

Other consumers complain about rising costs. While it’s true that the newer LED bulbs’ sticker price is more expensive than the older globe models, in this case the cheaper option isn’t saving you money (more on that later).

The Birth of a Bulb

Although frequently credited to Thomas Edison, the light bulb, like most great inventions, was the result of multiple ideas from multiple people. Changed and improved over the years, the light bulb finally became the familiar design of a round globe with a wire filament inside. When heated to a high temperature, the filament glows, creating visible light.

These bulbs waste a lot of energy in the creation of light. By the 1950s, the light bulb was still unable to convert more than 10% of the energy it used into light, and researchers gave up trying to improve it further.

Here’s the thing about incandescent bulbs. They create light by first generating heat that is about 90% of their output. Not only is this wasted energy, it’s also unwanted heat that can drive consumers to run air conditioning more frequently. This rise in wasted energy and overall electricity usage hits consumers in their wallets and increases greenhouse gas emissions.

The End of an Era?

In 2007 Congress established the first national light bulb efficiency standards. This energy legislation was signed into law by President George W. Bush and finalized after President Obama took office in 2009. The law required new light bulbs to use 28% less power than existing incandescent lights starting in 2012 and to essentially end the sale of the older, inefficient bulbs in January 2020.

Incandescent bulbs that had served their purpose for the time in which they were created were scheduled to become extinct, rightfully making way for more environmentally-friendly lighting.

In January 2019, however, the Energy Department under the Trump Administration announced they would be rolling back requirements for new, energy-efficient light bulbs. This decision was made at a time when electricity use by American households was on a significant decline.

The National Resources Defense Council warned of the dangers this regulation reversal could cause: “The rollback will lead to higher energy bills for homes and businesses, plus significantly more pollution harming our health and the environment.”

This rollback is likely to be contested by various groups. If the incandescent bulbs do stick around, however, it’s important for you to be informed enough to make the best choice.

For the sake of both your bank account and carbon footprint, avoid traditional incandescent bulbs and the newer halogen incandescent bulbs. Choose one of these instead:

Compact Fluorescent Lights (better)

compact fluorescent light bulb

When CFLs first hit the market in the 1980s, they were too bulky and expensive to be a viable option for consumers, but manufacturers have made a lot of improvements since then. The products of today are around $1.74 a bulb in a four-pack, use about 75% less energy than traditional bulbs and last roughly 10 times as long (about 10,000 hours).

CFLs don’t brighten as quickly, however, so you may not want to use this gradual light in places where you need immediate visibility. These types of bulbs also don’t work as well as outdoor lighting in cold climates (as CFLs don’t work well in cold temperatures). CFLs also contain small amounts of mercury, so they do need to be disposed of properly.

Light-Emitting Diodes (best)

LED bulbs hanging on wire

LEDs, the newest type of light bulbs, are the most energy-efficient bulbs on the market today. They use less energy than CFLs and last even longer: up to 50,000 hours. Unlike CFLs, LEDs brighten instantly and can withstand cold temperatures. Using LED bulbs can reduce your electricity consumption by up to 80% each year.

But they are more expensive at checkout. Although the price of LEDs can start at $10 each, you must keep in mind the savings through less energy consumption and less frequent light bulb purchases.

Understanding All the Other Labels

Stumped by all the letters, numbers and symbols on the new light bulb packages? These labels are a packaging requirement for new light bulbs.

Here’s the breakdown of what they mean:


warm color light bulb

If you’re looking for lighting similar to the aesthetic of incandescent bulbs, search for the word “warm” to describe the lighting, about 2,500 Kelvin. If you want whiter light, you’ll want to go higher up the spectrum. For reference, 5,000K gives the illusions of “daylight.”

Shapes and Sizes

circular and cylindrical light bulbs

The letters on the package refer to shape, and the number reflects the diameter of the bulb at its widest point.

Types of Shapes:

  • standard (A)
  • globe (G)
  • bullet (B)
  • candle (C)
  • flare (F)
  • reflector (R)
  • sign (S)
  • tubular (T)

Write this info down before you go, or toss your old light bulbs in a reusable shopping bag.

Energy Star

energy star label on light bulb box

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Department of Energy utilize the Energy Star label to identify products that meet an established set of energy-efficient criteria.

After the Bulb Burns Out

In addition to purchasing eco-friendly lighting, it’s equally important to dispose of those bulbs in a way that won’t harm the environment. Because CFL bulbs contain a small amount of mercury, they need to be treated as hazardous waste. Visit the Earth911 Website website to find a disposal site near you.

Energy Star bulbs have a two-year warranty. If your CFL bulbs burnout in less than two years, simply return them to your retailer for a replacement.

Some of the components in LED bulbs may be recyclable, so check with your local recycling company to see if they will accept your LEDs. Remember that being sustainable is about considering the entire lifecycle of a product, not only the beginning.

Download Our Free Guide to Sustainable Living.

From reducing waste to recycling and upcycling, our e-book shows simple ways to make choices you can feel good about.

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