How Many Light Bulbs Does it Take to Change an Episcopalian?

Andy Barnett is a joint master’s candidate at Yale University’s Environment and Divinity Schools. His research focuses on common-ground climate solutions that are big enough to matter and small enough to manage. He is also a jazz pianist with an active touring schedule throughout the Northeast.

“The Bishop’s on the phone!” somebody yelled. I picked up the receiver with sweating palms. “We’ve got some money set aside for energy efficiency,” he told me, “and we’re looking to get people on board in the Episcopal church. Can you help?”

“Grab-llargh-atron,” I stammered eloquently. “Can I think about it for a few days and get back to you?”  I’d long been excited about these kinds of projects, but now it was time for the rubber to hit the road.

People of faith can be incredible advocates for environmental solutions. We gather every week, share common values, work like a team, and deliver results. We care about the plight of the poor–those disproportionately hurt by climate change–and we have a strong connection with justice and peace.

Still, when the call came, I realized that someone was going to have to actually do something. Terror rattled my environmentalist bones.

Reasons To Do Nothing

What on Earth were we going to do? My mind raced through the possibilities.

  • Solar panels on every roof? No way to pay for that.
  • Geothermal wells? Ditto the money problem.
  • Organic community gardens with free-range basil! We only had 8 weeks.
  • Tree planting around Ohio? How many trees are we going to plant? I mean really.
  • Energy audits and new thermostats? I don’t know how to do it right.
  • Energy efficient light bulbs? So cliché.
  • Bike racks at churches? Would people feel overly controlled?

Every time I thought of a solution, I immediately named the problems. Why try something new when we could just maintain the status quo? I got frustrated as I struggled to develop a project big enough to matter and small enough to manage.

Then I remembered Bill McKibben’s words, “the only thing a morally awake person can do in the face of unspeakable odds is EVERYTHING YOU CAN, ALL THE TIME.” So I reached out to Fletcher Harper, whose GreenFaith project helps faith communities walk the environment-talk in exciting ways. I shared my ideas and my self-inflicted critique and expected him to kill the project over the phone.  Instead, he told me something I’ll never forget:

I’ve been at this a long time, and I’ve heard dozens of reasons to halt progress. So often the conversation starts with enthusiasm and projects die in the shooting range of pessimism. Environmental problems are complex- that’s why they’re problems! Nobody knows enough (on the front end) to start an effective project. Nobody has all of the time, volunteers or money in hand when the conversation starts. Nobody has a plan for unforeseen consequences. And my message to you is simply one word:


When you start, you’ll find the money, time, and volunteers because suddenly there’s a project to join and fund. You’ll learn from your mistakes and you’ll figure it out as you move.  So get started, and call me when you succeed.

I hung up, inspired. I called the bishop again, and we settled on the light bulb exchange.  This, of course, led to a question and answer session.

Q: How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?

A: 10. One to change it, and nine to tell you the old one was better.

Q: How many Episcopalians does it take to change a light bulb?

A: Change??!!!

Q: How many Unitarians does it take to change a light bulb?

A: We choose not to make a statement either for or against the need for a light bulb. However, if in your own journey you have found that light bulbs work for you, that is just great. Next month at our annual light bulb Sunday service, we will explore a number of light bulb traditions, including incandescent, fluorescent, three-way, long-life and tinted, all of which are equally valid paths toward luminescence.

We ran the project by some Ohio folks and settled on the title, “How Many Light Bulbs Does it Take to Change an Episcopalian.” The answer, we were about to learn, was 5,431. Those five thousand, four hundred and thirty-one bulbs would save roughly $228,000 and 4.34 million pounds of carbon dioxide.  That’s the same carbon benefit you’d get if you removed 320 cars from the road every year for ten years.

Starting Anyway

I rolled into my Cleveland “office” and discovered a desk. Later I got a phone. That was pretty much all I had to work with.  A desk, a phone, and the 95 Episcopal churches in Ohio. You’d be surprised what Episcopalians can do when they put their minds to it.

Soon we developed a spreadsheet to help folks specify their needs.  Any bulb under 600 watts has a Compact Fluorescent Light bulb (CFL) equivalent, and the options are endless. We realized we needed a corporate partner. After several phone calls and at least as many dead ends, I landed a meeting with locally based Technical Consumer Products, the largest company you’ve never heard of.  These guys agreed to discount our bulb orders and provide 50 free bulbs to any church that got on board. I was quickly learning that starting this project meant meeting kindred spirits who would help us re-imagine and expand our scope.

How Many Light Bulbs Does It Take?

What began as a project to put light bulbs in churches grew into an outreach program for 19,000 Episcopalians.  Folks learned about efficient lighting in church, then had a chance to take home free bulbs that provided environmental and financial benefits. Sixty-one churches participated after learning that you save $42 and 800 pounds of carbon dioxide every time you replace a 75-watt bulb with a 23-watt CFL.

We knew we needed a way to collect dead bulbs, and this turned into a major challenge. We tried all kinds of collection systems, including a 4-foot tall “trash” box that you might find at a 1980’s stadium. After one hundred boxes arrived on the Cathedral loading dock, I assembled one box and dropped a bulb into the great chasm. This bulb shattered on contact, and I sprinted to catch the truck driver. He was gone and I felt like an imposter as I stared at the disheveled piles of useless boxes. Who was I to lead this thing?  Maybe it was time to bail.

Later, my boss would tell me, “This is how we learn,” and we came to view failure as a teacher. According to Thomas Watson, the founder of IBM, “If you want to succeed, double your failure rate.” The hundred large boxes became clothing storage for the local shelter.

After several tests, we sealed the old bulbs in bags and provided a small box that doubled as a billboard for the project.  We covered the box with a logo, title, and suggestions to further reduce pollution through energy efficiency. Folks could bring the bulbs to Home Depot for free recycling. I remembered Thomas Edison’s famous repetitions to build the perfect light bulb, and smiled as we tried to match his resilience.

“What about the mercury?”

It turns out that one broken CFL releases about the same amount of mercury as contained in a can of tuna, and the fish got half that mercury from coal-fired power plants! Though a typical CFL contains 4 milligrams (mg) of mercury, you’d have to work to get that mercury out of the bulb because it’s sealed inside a protective coating. Even if you completely pulverized the bulb, your risk is lower than eating a big tuna salad. More importantly, coal-fired power plants spew half the mercury pollution in the U.S, so saving energy cuts mercury pollution. Each CFL actually reduces mercury pollution by 3.6 milligrams.


Still, people were nervous about breaking bulbs inside, so I researched this question extensively. We did not want our ‘solution’ to create more problems. If you do break a bulb at home, EPA says open a window, sweep up the pieces, use sticky-tape to collect powder, and put everything in a sealed bag.

From mercury, I learned to respond to people’s most pressing concerns, which weren’t the concerns I had expected. I didn’t expect Mercury to come up so often, but it was by far the top comment we received.

At the end of 8 weeks, we sent 5,431 bulbs to 61 churches in Ohio, and we partnered with a local business to mitigate a global problem.  Our project saved money in the short term and provided global benefits in the long term by reducing climate pollution. It was big enough to matter and small enough to manage.  And people of faith got a chance to apply their theology on the ground. We started changing light bulbs, and we had conversations around the state about climate change, energy efficiency, and caring for the poor.

So if you’ve ever dreamed up a project, but gotten stuck in critique, here’s an invitation to start anyway. You’ll figure it out as you go, and you never know whom you’ll meet and what you’ll learn. So let’s do this.  Let’s get started. Anyway.


Correction: the original post indicated that “one CFL has less mercury than a can of tuna.” It has been updated to reflect that “one broken CFL releases about the same amount of mercury as contained in a can of tuna.”

  • One CFL has less mercury than a can of tuna.Is it really?

  • Andrew Barnett

    I looked at this data again, and it looks like I need to make a correction to the article.
    I apologize for missing this the first time around. The amount of mercury released into the the room after a bulb breaks is equal to the amount of mercury in a can of tuna. I mistakenly wrote: the amount of mercury in the light bulb is less than the amount in a can of tuna.

    This data comes from: Mercury Risk in CFLs

    John Balbus, M.D., is Chief Health Officer at Environmental Defense.

    “If a CFL breaks, some of the mercury that’s contained in the bulb will evaporate into the air. How much? It’s hard to be certain, butone study [PDF] looking at long tubular fluorescent bulbs found that over a two week period, only 17 to 40 percent of the mercury in the bulb evaporated. The rest remained stuck in the bulb. Roughly one-third of the mercury that evaporated did so in the first eight hours after the breakage; the rest seeped out slowly over the remainder of the study period.

    The amount of mercury in a CFL is very small, only 4-5 milligrams. This is almost one thousand times less than what was in mercury thermometers! So, let’s assume that what happens with CFLs is comparable to what happens with tubular fluorescents. If a bulb breaks, only 0.67 milligrams of mercury (one-third of 40 percent of 5 milligrams) might become airborne in the room during the first eight hours, and only a fraction of that would be breathed in. In short, the exposure from breaking a compact fluorescent bulb is in about the same range as the exposure from eating a can or two of tuna fish. (See our list of “Best and Worst Seafood Choices” for more on mercury in fish.)

    The tiny amount of mercury you’re exposed to when breaking a CFL is extremely unlikely to cause any ill effects, noticeable or otherwise. But how do you minimize even this tiny amount of risk?”

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