Uptake and disposal of compact fluorescent lights by Canadian households

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by Gordon Dewis, Environment Accounts and Statistics Division

[Release from The Daily] [Full article in PDF]

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Using more energy-efficient lights is one way households can reduce the amount of electricity they consume and their energy costs. Halogen lights, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) and light-emitting diode (LED) lights, have been developed as more energy-efficient alternatives to traditional incandescent lights.

  • In 2011, slightly less than one-third (32%) of Canadian households used a “controlled” method to dispose of dead or unwanted CFLs, with 24% using a depot or drop-off centre, and 8% returning the bulb(s) to the supplier or retailer. Half of the households disposing a CFL used an “uncontrolled” method (i.e., throwing them in the garbage), or still had them at the time of interview (12%).
  • In 2011, almost 9 out of 10 households (87%) in Canadian census metropolitan areas (CMAs) had at least one type of energy-saving light. The majority of CMA households (75%) had at least one CFL.

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Energy-efficient lights in Canada

The Energy Efficiency Act and the related Energy Efficiency Regulations set out the standards for various products that use electricity, including lighting products. 100 W and 75 W light bulbs manufactured on or after January 1, 2014 must meet minimum energy performance standards (MEPS), and MEPS will apply to 60 W and 40 W light bulbs manufactured on or after December 31, 2014.Note1 These MEPS require standard light bulbs to consume at least 28% less energy than traditional incandescent light bulbs available on the market today.

In implementing these performance standards, the Government of Canada anticipates a reduction in annual energy consumption of between 37.1 and 51.5 petajoules, and a reduction in annual greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions of between 5.17 and 7.5 megatonnes by the year 2025.

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The need to conserve

Canadian households used 547,096 terajoules (TJ) of electricity in 2011, or 40 gigajoules (GJ) per household.Note2 The average household expended $1,255 on electricity costs during the same period.Note3 There are many things in the typical Canadian home that consume electricity, including televisions, computers, household appliances (e.g., refrigerators, washing machines, dryers and air conditioners), charging devices for cell phones and tablets, lights and electric heating. Advancements in technology have resulted in the development of more energy-efficient versions of many types of these devices. The incandescent light bulb, however, is one common household item that remains fairly inefficient with respect to electricity.

Between 4% and 6% of the electricity consumed by a typical incandescent light produces light, while the balance is emitted as heat.Note4 As a result, more energy-efficient lights, such as halogen lights, compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) and light-emitting diode (LED) lights, have been developed as alternatives to traditional incandescent lights. These energy-efficient lights consume less energy to produce the same amount of light that would be emitted by an incandescent bulb, however they tend to be more expensive to buy compared to traditional incandescent lights. They also tend to have longer lives, meaning that the energy costs in terms of production and disposal tend to be less.

While a traditional incandescent light is made from a glass bulb and a small amount of tungsten and other metals that do not pose significant environmental impacts, some energy-efficient lights, such as CFLs and fluorescent tubes, contain mercury, which can have significant impacts on both human health and the environment. Thus, special care must be taken when disposing of these types of lights at the end of their lives to avoid negative health and environmental impacts.Note5

Uptake of compact fluorescent lights

In 2011, almost 9 out of 10 households (87%) in Canadian census metropolitan areas (CMAs) had at least one type of energy-saving light (Table 1). The majority of CMA households (75%) had at least one CFL. Households in the Kingston and Thunder Bay CMAs were most likely (85%) to report having one. All CMAs in Quebec, which is the province where the cost per kilowatt-hour (kWh) tends to be the lowest in Canada,Note6 reported uptake rates for CFLs lower than the CMA average of 75%, with the exception of the Quebec part of the Ottawa-Gatineau CMA (80%).

Disposal of compact fluorescent lights

Although CFLs are designed to last longer than conventional incandescent lights, like all lights they will eventually die and need to be disposed of. Because they contain mercury they need to be treated as hazardous waste and should not be put in the garbage, but rather disposed of in a safe manner. Safe or “controlled” disposal methods include use of “take back” programs run by retailers, and household hazardous waste depots or drop-off centres. However, while the availabilty of these programs has been increasing in recent years, they are not yet universally available in Canada. This, combined with factors such as the perceived inconvenience of taking dead or unwanted bulbs to a special location, or a lack of awareness of the availability of special disposal programs, has led to a large number of these bulbs being disposed of in regular household garbage.


In almost every case, households used only one method to dispose of their dead or unwanted CFLs. In 2011, slightly less than one-third (32%) used a “controlled” method of disposal, with 24% using a depot or drop-off centre, and 8% returning the bulb(s) to the supplier or retailer (Table 2). Half of the households disposing a CFL used an “uncontrolled” method (i.e., throwing them in the garbage), or still had them at the time of interview (12%). The remainder used an unknown method to dispose of them.

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What is mercury?

Mercury is a heavy metal that can be present in the environment in many different forms. Elemental mercury is naturally present in the Earth’s crust, in raw materials such as coal, crude oil and other fossil fuels, and in minerals such as limestone, soils and metal ores (including zinc, copper and gold). In addition to natural processes, mercury can be released into the environment as a result of human activity, such as the combustion of coal and refined petroleum products, the extraction of metals from ore, and the use and disposal of consumer products containing mercury such as batteries and light bulbs.

Once in the environment, mercury can be converted to various forms, including a highly toxic compound known as methyl mercury, a potent neurotoxin that is readily absorbed, distributed and passed through the protective blood-brain barrier, affecting the central nervous system. It can accumulate in living organisms and biomagnify (i.e., increase in concentration) as it moves up the food chain. Depending on the level of exposure, effects on humans, fish and wildlife can include slower growth, reproductive failure, and the development of abnormal behaviours that can affect survival. Methyl mercury is particularly damaging to the development of infants and young children, who are especially vulnerable given their nervous systems are still developing. In pregnant women, it can cross the placenta into the fetus, accumulating in the fetal brain and other tissues, and it can also be passed to infants through breast milk.

Adapted from: Environment Canada and Health Canada, 2010, Risk Management Strategy for Mercury, (accessed January 16, 2014).

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Census metropolitan area level

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Comparisons between CMAs take into consideration only those values for the variable that were releasable under Statistics Canada’s data quality guidelines.

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Kingston and Thunder Bay led the country in uptake of CFLs in 2011, with 85% of households in these CMAs reporting that they used these lights. In comparison, households in Moncton were the least likely to have used CFLs (61%). In terms of disposal, households in Guelph were the most likely to have reported having dead or unwanted CFLs (41%), followed by those in Sherbrooke (about 29%) and Québec (28%).

Households in Halifax were most likely to have disposed of their dead or unwanted CFLs in the garbage, with 84% that had dead or unwanted CFLs doing this. Households in Hamilton were the least likely to have reported this disposal method (about 27%).

Disposal via a depot or drop-off centre was most commonly reported by households in Guelph (56%), while households in the CMA of Québec were the least likely to have made use of one (about 13%).

The use of retailer take back programs was reported infrequently, with only three CMAs having releasable numbers: Toronto (about 12%), Vancouver (about 11%) and Montréal (about 9%).

Changes from 2009

Though just two years passed from the last time Canadian households were asked about their use and disposal of CFLs, some CMAs exhibited relatively large changes in one or both of these practices. The largest changes tended to be related to the rates of disposal of CFLs in the garbage as opposed to the rates of uptake.

The proportion of households that disposed of their dead or unwanted CFLs in the garbage in London, for example, decreased from 60% in 2009 to about 33% in 2011, while the rate of uptake of these bulbs was relatively unchanged from 84% in 2009 to 81% in 2011 (Table 2). Similarly, Hamilton saw a decrease in the rate of disposal in the garbage from about 50% in 2009 to about 27% in 2011, Saguenay saw a decrease from 78% to about 56%, Toronto saw a decrease from 48% to about 29%, and Calgary saw a decrease from 65% to 50%. Smaller decreases in the rate of disposal in the garbage were seen in Windsor (53% in 2009 to 46% in 2011), Ottawa-Gatineau (59% to 51%) and Regina (77% to 71%).

While most rates of disposal of dead or unwanted CFLs in the garbage decreased, a few CMAs showed an increase from 2009 to 2011. The rate in Halifax increased from about 61% in 2009 to 84% in 2011, in Edmonton from about 32% to about 44%, and in St. John’s from 73% to 78%.

Changes in rates of uptake of CFLs tended to be smaller than changes in the rates of disposal in the garbage. Winnipeg, for example, saw an increase in the rate of uptake of CFLs of 8 percentage points, (from 68% in 2009 to 76% in 2011), while the rate of disposal of CFLs in the garbage was stable (64% in 2009 and 63% in 2011). On the other hand, Halifax, which saw a large increase in the rate of disposal in the garbage, saw a large decrease in the rate of uptake of CFLs, from 84% in 2009 to 74% in 2011.

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What you should know about this study

This study is based on data from the 2009 and 2011 Households and the Environment Survey (HES), which were conducted as part of the Canadian Environmental Sustainability Indicators initiative. Respondents were asked to indicate whether they had any compact fluorescent lights (CFLs), fluorescent tubes, halogen lights or light-emitting diode (LED) lights. As well, they were asked if they had had any dead or unwanted CFLs to dispose of in the past year and how they disposed of them if they did.

Not all census metropolitan areas (CMAs) are represented in the analysis of all variables in this study as some results were suppressed for data quality reasons. The criteria for inclusion of a CMA were that the result had to have a coefficient of variation (CV) no higher than 33.3 and at least 20 records had to have contributed to the result. In cases where fewer than 20 records contributed to a result, the value was deemed “too unreliable to be published,” regardless of the CV and indicated as an F in the data table. Values that had a CV between 16.5 and 33.3 (and at least 20 records contributing) are to be used with caution, which is indicated with an E in the data table.

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  1. Canada Gazette Part I, 2013, Regulations Amending the Energy Efficiency Regulations, Vol. 147, no. 40, pages 2305 to 2325.
  2. Statistics Canada, 2013, Households and the Environment: Energy Use, 2011, Catalogue no. 11-526-S.
  3. Statistics Canada, CANSIM table 203-0021 (accessed January 16, 2014).
  4. Natural Resources Canada, 2008, Basic Facts about Residential Lighting, Catalogue no. M144-146/2008E.
  5. Environment Canada, 2012, Pollution and Waste – Fluorescent Lamps, (accessed January 16, 2014).
  6. Statistics Canada, Consumer Prices Division, 2011, special tabulation.
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