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LEDs, CFLs and Incandescents: What’s the Difference?

All three of Tufts’ campuses use a combination of light-emitting diode (LED) light bulbs, compact florescent light bulbs (CLFs) and incandescent light bulbs. Each of these bulbs use different levels of energy and require different recycling processes. Here’s a basic breakdown of these differences:

LED Light Bulbs

About: The majority of the new bulbs installed around campus are LED bulbs. According to Betsy Isenstein, the interim Recycling Coordinator at Tufts Recycles, LED bulbs are generally more energy-efficient than CFLs, and always more efficient than incandescent bulbs. They also produce a better quality of light, can be dimmed/adjusted easily and last for a long time–25,000 hours, or three hours a day for 22.8 years! On the other hand, these bulbs are directional, which means they work better in lights under cabinetry than in table lamps.

LED light bulbs come in all different shapes and varieties. Via

LED light bulbs come in all different shapes and varieties. Via

Recycling: LED bulbs are recycled at Tufts with our e-waste by Next Level Recycling (NLR), a company based in Windsor, CT. Brian Watson, Senior Sale Professional at NLR, said the company picks up the bulbs, transports them to the facility and processes them through a shing, which is a machine that’s specifically made for recycling bulbs. “[The shing] separates all the materials out so they can be reused,” he said. “Then we send the constituent parts to downstream vendors that will reuse them for a new product, so the bulbs are 100% recyclable.”


About: CFLs are much more energy efficient than incandescent bulbs, although less efficient than LEDs. For this reason, we recommend using LED bulbs instead. CLFs also contain mercury, which means that if a bulb breaks, it may be necessary to ventilate the area so that the toxic mercury fumes are not inhaled. On the other hand, CFL bulbs can be placed in standard light sockets and don’t require an adapter, and they are cheaper to purchase initially than LEDs.

Though fluorescent light bulbs and tubes have mercury in them, they actually help reduce mercury emissions from power plants. This is because a substantial part of the electricity in Massachusetts is made by burning coal, a process that releases mercury. Because fluorescent lamps use so much less electricity, the mercury that is in them is actually less than what would have been released from the coal power plant if regular bulbs had been used.

Recycling: CFLs must be recycled as “universal waste” since they have mercury. NLR collects these bulbs from all three of Tufts’ campuses, too, as throwing them away can be dangerous due to the mercury. Virtually all parts of any type of florescent bulb can be recycled, although Brian said there are “a lot of issues that go into storing universal waste.”

Incandescent Light Bulbs

As of 2013, these are no longer distributed or authorized on any of Tufts’ campuses. When Tufts does dispose of an old incandescent bulb, NLR will recycle them. “It’s better to recycle [incandescent bulbs] in order to reclaim the metal and glass and divert it from the landfills,” Brian said. These bulbs only last between 1,000 and 2,000 hours. Additionally, more than 90% of the energy produced by incandescent lights appears in the form of heat, rather than light, which means that 90% of the energy from these bulbs is ultimately wasted!

Stop buying incandescent bulbs! They are environmentally and economically inefficient.

Distribution of Bulbs on Campus

Some locations on campus are more suited to CFLs, while other locations are more suited to LEDs. Betsy¬† Isenstein said Tufts first started experimenting with LEDs seven or eight years ago, installing them in the top floor of Dowling Hall and in the Dowling parking garage. “Since then, we’ve installed LEDs in tons of places,” she said. “Hogdgon Hall’s common spaces are all LED lighting and all of the post top lights are LED, except for the ones around Sophia Gordon Hall.”

Betsy explained that LEDs have become more cost-effective at Tufts, especially because of LED utility incentive programs that are in place, but the technology of LEDs is still evolving. “Overtime, we’ll be moving toward LED bulbs, but right now it’s going to depend on the type of fixture and the operating hours of the fixture,” she said. “If it’s a bulb that’s hard to change, it’ll be an LED because it will be there for a while.”

How Can I Recycle My Bulb?

If you have a light bulb in need of recycling, please contact us for pickup. Students can also exchange their old incandescent bulbs for a free CFL at the Office of Sustainability, and students in residence halls can request a LED bulb from their eco-rep.

These popular chain retailers will take your used CFLs at no cost:

  • Ace Hardware
  • The Home Depot
  • Ikea
  • True Value Hardware
  • Whole Foods Market


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