A recycling bin at Maine Hardware in Portland, filled with compact fluorescent lightbulbs, left, and fluorescent tube lighting. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Maine started giving the side-eye to the traditional fluorescent lightbulb back in 2009, when it became the first state in the country to require manufacturers to lower the amount of mercury in the bulbs and fund a retail-based recycling and disposal program.

Last week, after years of trying to work out problems with recycling them, Maine finally broke up with the fluorescent bulb. Like Vermont and California, Maine adopted a law that will phase out the sale of the vast majority of these former environmental darlings by 2026.

Home consumers may have assumed the split happened years ago: those spiral compact fluorescent lights, or CFLs, that may still light up the odd pantry or guest-room closet are no longer sold in most Maine stores. But vendors still sell the linear fluorescent tubes that often illuminate offices and factories.

According to Sarah Nichols of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, the sales ban should save Mainers millions of dollars in electricity costs, reduce climate pollution by thousands of tons each year and stop toxic mercury in the bulbs from contaminating the air and water.

“I’m so glad that Maine could join this movement,” Nichols said. “Maine has always taken a lead role in reducing toxics and promoting energy efficiency, but this is a really good example of a law that works to protect our environment that also works for Maine people and the Maine economy.”

The bill, L.D. 1814, became law on July 5 without the signature of Gov. Janet Mills. It easily passed both the House and Senate after supporters agreed to water it down a bit, delaying its implementation by a year and weakening the state’s enforcement power.


Certain niche fluorescents are exempt, like those used in tanning beds, medical imaging or photocopiers.

The ban only applies to the sale of new fluorescent bulbs; no one has to get rid of existing fluorescents. Once existing bulbs go dark, however, customers will have to replace them with mercury-free bulbs. The most likely replacement? Light-emitting diode, or LED, lights, which last longer, are more efficient and come in tubes and many other shapes and sizes.

While the law doesn’t mandate inspections, the DEP will be able to pursue violations it deems necessary.

Anyone who wants to get rid of their fluorescents can continue to use manufacturer-financed recycling stations located at many of the hardware and lumber shops that have sold fluorescents. Some landfills will also recycle the bulbs. Ridding the state of all banned fluorescents will take time, however; they last about 10,000 hours, which is five years if turned on seven hours a day, five days a week.

No one testified against the merits of the bill at public hearings, although the state raised cost concerns.

A fluorescent bulb produces light by sending an electric current through a fluorescent-coated tube filled with argon and about 4 milligrams of mercury (old thermometers contain 500 milligrams). The current generates an invisible ultraviolet light that stimulates the interior coating in a way we perceive as light.


Environmentalists initially overlooked the dangers of the mercury because of the bulbs’ huge energy savings over old-school incandescents. That changed with the arrival of LEDs, which save more money and energy than a fluorescent with no mercury required.

Fluorescent bulbs release mercury when broken. Breakages in homes, schools and hospitals can cause a potential health risk, particularly for pregnant women and infants. If thrown away, mercury leakage can put waste collectors at risk or contaminate water near an improperly maintained landfill.

“Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can cause serious health impacts,” said Sarah Woodbury, advocacy director for Defend Our Health, a local environmental advocacy group. “Mercury lightbulbs can leach from landfills and contaminate rivers, lakes, and oceans and the fish and shellfish.”

The Appliance Standards Awareness Project, a Boston-based group that advocates for affordable, planet-friendly lighting standards, estimates that by 2030, the ban will have kept 3.9 pounds of mercury out of Maine. Because LEDs last so much longer, it also would save 11,000 metric tons of carbon emissions and $16 million in potential electricity bill savings.

By 2050, Mainers could see savings of $216 million in reduced utility bills and avoid 150,000 metric tons in carbon-dioxide emissions thanks to reduced energy usage, said Josh McClenney, policy associate with the project. That’s why a ban makes sense, he said.

“LEDs have become widely available and cost-effective replacements,” McClenney said. “Maine joins a growing number of states that are saving families and small businesses millions on their utility bills by phasing out the sale of these energy-wasting bulbs that contain mercury.”


Last year, the Biden administration proposed a phaseout of CFLs as part of its climate change strategy. The rule, which has yet to be finalized, would more than double the minimum efficiency levels of the most common lightbulbs from the current standard of 45 lumens per watt to over 120 lumens per watt.

The U.S. Department of Energy estimates that this change, as well as a decision to pull incandescents off the shelves by this summer, will cut carbon-dioxide emissions by 131 million metric tons over 30 years. The amount reduced, plus accompanying reductions in methane emissions, is equivalent to the amount of emissions produced when powering 29 million homes for a year, the department said.

CFLs were a longtime favorite of the popular Energy Star program, but their status and market position began to fall about a decade ago with the arrival of LEDs. Efficiency-minded customers who didn’t like the physical appearance of the CFL spiral tubes, the cold white light they gave off, how slow they were to illuminate and a dearth of dimming options easily jumped ship to LEDs.

Calls to a dozen hardware and big-box stores in Maine on Tuesday did not uncover a single CFL light still on the shelf. Two salesmen offered to special order CFLs; one suggested the best place to still find them was in foreclosed homes and unclaimed storage units.

“I thought they’d been banned years ago,” said Norman Sirois, the general manager of Eldredge Lumber & Hardware in Portland. “We get people coming in to replace their old CFLs, sometimes because the old one is dimming and sometimes because it’s an environmental thing, but buying CFLs? No.”

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