by David Goldstein

Are you waiting until your incandescent light bulbs burn out before switching to LED bulbs?

Experts agree, from both a financial and an environmental perspective, that it makes sense to throw your perfectly working incandescent bulbs in the trash and replace them with LEDs. Severin Borenstein, a professor at University of California, Berkeley Haas School of Business, in his online Berkeley Blog, uses people’s unwillingness to discard working incandescent bulbs as an example of the “sunk cost fallacy,” a common error in judgment resulting from decision-making abilities becoming warped by previous investments.

As Southern California Edison spokesperson Sally Jeun explains, LED bulbs “use about 80 percent less electricity and last up to 10 times longer,” so the small amount of waste created by discarding a functioning incandescent is much less than the amount of waste created by operating an inefficient lightbulb.

Of course, the comparison is not obvious, since the waste of discarding a bulb is solid waste, while the waste of operating an inefficient bulb seems invisible. Solving this environmental puzzle requires looking at the purpose of solid waste prevention. One purpose is keeping material out of landfills, but lightbulb glass is a tiny fraction of a landfill’s contents, so that is not significant. Saving energy and conserving resources are larger environmental goals of waste prevention, whether accomplished through recycling or extending product life. Since discarding an incandescent bulb early and replacing it with an LED saves so much electricity, these factors also favor early replacement.

When compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) were the major alternative to incandescent bulbs, people had many reasons not to switch. Some CFLs flickered, their light did not look like incandescent light and many were badly made, undermining the claim of longer life. Worse, when CFLs broke, they could spread toxic mercury. When they burned out, they had to be dropped off at special recycling centers.

In contrast, switching to LEDs has no such drawbacks. LEDs gradually dim, rather than burning out, but they usually maintain light levels comparable to similarly rated incandescent bulbs for decades. Also, LEDs have a “range of light color temperatures,” according to YLighting, an online bulb seller. Experiment with LEDs listing various “color coordinated temperature” ratings to find one you like. The YLighting website notes that many people prefer “white” light for ambient use, such as in a kitchen, but prefer bluer, more natural-looking light for fixtures such as bedside reading lamps.

Last year, Sunset K-8 Elementary School in the Ventura Unified School District received a $4,400 rebate from a lighting manufacturer, bringing its cost down to just $8,600 for the replacement of 1,500 32-watt, T8 fluorescent lamps with all 10-watt LEDs. The school is now saving nearly $23,000 per year, according to Dave Marshall, the district’s facilities services director.

Currently, Southern California Edison does not provide financial incentives for conversion to LEDs, but its website does provide informational assistance. Go to www.marketplace.sce.com and click “explore all categories,” at the top left, then scroll down to lightbulbs.

David Goldstein is an Environmental Resource Analyst with the Ventura County Public Works Agency.