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Eco Etiquette: Help! Compact Fluorescent Lights Are Ugly!

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I try my best to be environmentally conscious (I recycle, bike to work, buy organic when possible), so I recently bought CFLs for my whole house -- but they look horrible! Is there anything I can do? I feel like I'm living in a college dorm.

-Mitch

Ugh, I really sympathize with you. I've remained committed to my decision to swap out all the regular lightbulbs in our apartment with compact fluorescents (CFLs) -- you can't really argue with a 75 percent reduction in energy consumption (good for the environment and your wallet) -- but not an evening goes by that I don't cringe when I turn on those sallow suckers. I do hate to admit to the negative aspects of CFLs, especially regarding such a superficial complaint, because there's arguably no other change you can make for the greater green good that's as simple and effective; changing the world really is as simple as screwing in a lightbulb. Perhaps that's why entire continents (Europe, Australia) are phasing out traditional bulbs altogether.

Concerns about CFLs extend beyond mere aesthetics, however; because these bulbs contain small amounts of mercury, it's imperative that broken CFLs are cleaned up carefully to minimize health risks and that used bulbs are recycled to avoid groundwater contamination. Still, it's important to note that the mercury contained in CFLs is a mere drop in the ocean compared to the mercury emissions from coal-fired power plants. The EPA estimates that if all 290 million CFL bulbs sold in the US in 2007 were sent to the landfill, the overall release of mercury would equal .13 metric tons; coal-fired power plants, on the other hand, are responsible for emitting 104 metric tons of mercury each year. The choice is clear: If you have any hope of one day eating seafood without first consulting a mercury pollution chart, start changing those bulbs.

There are a lot of guides out there to help you choose bulbs with the least amount of mercury and the most flattering light -- the Environmental Working Group's Green Lighting Guide is a helpful starting point. But I'll be honest: I'm really looking forward to when LEDs (light-emitting diodes), which are even more efficient than CFLs and arguably more flattering, start to come down in price. There's also been some buzz about the new ESL (electron stimulated luminescence) bulb from Seattle manufacturer Vu1 that is currently in development -- no mercury, 65 to 70 percent less energy than incandescents, and virtually indistinguishable from the real deal.

In the meantime, a few tips to minimize the greenish ghoul effect:

Fire is your friend. When we're having friends over or I'm enjoying a romantic dinner with my husband, I turn off the overhead fixtures and light a few candles (beeswax or soy, of course) to complement the floor lamps in our living room -- it's amazing how just a few scattered around the room can really warm things up. Maybe it's merely the ritual of lighting candles that imparts a feeling of intimacy, but I swear it works.

LED there be light. LEDs are pricey, but they're the perfect investment for a few key areas where you truly can't tolerate the harsh light of CFLs -- say, the reading lamp on your nightstand. Your investment will pay off in the long run, since LEDs can last up to 10 times longer than CFLs and 100 times longer than incandescents.

Made in the shade. The right lamp shade can make all the difference. Our rice paper floor lamps transform CFL light from harsh glare to gentle glow; lighting designer Kathy Pryzgoda advises choosing a semi-transparent pink or amber shade.

If all else fails, take comfort in knowing that with worldwide mandates to phase out incandescent lighting, you're not the only disgruntled customer. Expect technology to progress rapidly in the next few years, since whoever discovers the holy grail of eco-friendly lighting is sure to make gazillions.

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

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