A small step for light bulbs, a big step for climate protection


From 1 September 2011 it will no longer be possible for 60 watt light bulbs to be put on the market. From a climate protection perspective Oeko-Institut welcomes systematic implementation in Germany of the EU Ecodesign Regulation for lamps. “Now, at last, consumers should stop buying incandescent light bulbs”, says Stéphanie Zangl, researcher at Oeko-Institut and an expert on energy-efficient lighting. “Energy-saving bulbs are the more environmentally friendly and efficient alternative: a household who replaces conventional light bulbs with energy-saving ones can save 100 Euro and 450 kilowatt hours of electricity a year – equivalent to four efficient freezers that are on 24 hours a day.”

Modern energy-saving bulbs take a variety of forms and have diverse light qualities. Unlike the first generation which appeared in the 1980s, they are available in different sizes, different colours and shades of white, and in dimmable and “quick-start” forms. What they all have in common are the highest energy efficiency categories – A and B – in which they are all to be found. Conventional light bulbs, by contrast, have an energy efficiency rating of D or E. Energy-saving lamps last six to 15 times longer than conventional light bulbs, can be switched on and off up to about 300,000 times and consume approx. 80 percent less electricity, thereby directly contributing to meeting ambitious EU climate targets.

In spite of the higher purchase costs, consumers still save money: the total annual costs of energy-saving light bulbs are significantly lower than traditional bulbs. While a conventional 60 watt light bulb has total costs of approx. 15 Euro in terms of the pro rata purchase price and annual power costs, the total costs of a comparable energy-saving bulb are only about three Euro. “There is no other product in the home,” adds Zangl, “with which you can save energy as quickly or in such quantities.”

No damage to health from mercury content

Energy-saving bulbs contain small amounts of mercury – approx. two to a maximum of five milligrams (mg). In normal operation the mercury is not released. It can only get outside of the energy-saving bulb if it breaks, which seldom happens – not least of all because an energy-saving bulb needs to be replaced six to 15 times less often than a conventional light bulb. Even in the rare event of breakage, there is no acute health risk: opening the windows to air the room, quickly sweeping up the broken fragments and putting them in a glass with a screw-cap swiftly reduce the exposure to mercury.

Even if a person were to ingest all the mercury contained in a bulb, the harmful effects would be minimal compared to other sources of mercury exposure. Eating a few kilograms of fish – which to this day still contains mercury and is permitted to contain up to one milligram of mercury per kilogram of fish – alone comprises accumulated mercury levels that are higher than those found in broken low-energy bulbs.

Less mercury? Reduce coal-based electricity production

Those who want to reduce the environmental impact of mercury should replace their light bulbs with energy-saving ones as soon as possible – and switch to renewable energies. This is because in coal-fired electricity production – which is still the means of almost 43 percent of total electricity production in Germany today – mercury is constantly being released. When coal burns, the mercury contained in small concentrations therein is released into the atmosphere. Since the power consumption of a traditional bulb is over five times higher, significantly more mercury is released than is in fact contained in a comparable energy-saving light bulb.

A stepwise reduction to 2.5 mg of the maximum quantities of mercury that are permitted legally in energy-saving bulbs is already planned. This regulation will apply within the EU from 1 January 2013. From January 2012 the low-energy bulbs are permitted to contain only 3.5 mg of mercury. Even today consumers can already choose to buy light bulbs with the lowest possible mercury content.

Spoilt for choice – the need for responsible consumers

Consumers need orientation and support in their purchasing decisions so that they can buy good and efficient products without great effort or expense. Labels like the Blue Angel logo and the EU energy efficiency label for all types of lamps provide basic orientation. In addition independent portals of consumer information like Oeko-Institut’s EcoTopTen website (www.ecotopten.de) or tests such as those found in the current issue of Germany’s Stiftung Warentest magazine (September 2011) can also provide assistance in purchasing decisions.

In terms of purchasing energy-saving bulbs, retailers also play an important role by providing advice. When faced by the growing range of lamp models customers can be given important orientation in terms of high-quality and particularly efficient products. It should also be made mandatory for retailers to take back used and broken light bulbs.

Further information

For more information, please refer to Oeko-Institut’s FAQ on energy-saving light bulbs (PDF)

Information on and recommendations with regard to energy-saving light bulbs can be found on Oeko-Institut’s EcoTopTen website [in German]


Stéphanie Zangl
Researcher, Sustainable Products & Material Flows Division
Oeko-Institut e.V., Freiburg Head Office
Phone: +49-761/45295-0
Email: s.zangl--at--oeko.de

Dr. Dietlinde Quack
Researcher, Sustainable Products & Material Flows Division
Oeko-Institut e.V., Freiburg Head Office
Phone: +49-761/45295-0
Email: d.quack--at--oeko.de

Oeko-Institut is a leading independent European research and consultancy institute working for a sustainable future. Founded in 1977, the institute develops principles and strategies for ways in which the vision of sustainable development can be realised globally, nationally and locally. It has offices in three cities in Germany: Freiburg, Darmstadt and Berlin.

Follow Oeko-Institut on Twitter! twitter.com/oekoinstitut

eco@work - fit for the future!
Oeko-Institut’s e-paper. Subscribe at www.oeko.de/epaper_engl