Disposing of Compact Fluorescent Lamps

First published October 2007, updated January 2012

I started using CFL bulbs (Compact Fluorescent Lamps) in the 90’s when they were still around 20 bucks a pop and were rather more cumbersome. Nowadays you can buy them for just a few dollars.

Since the cost has plummeted and they come in all sorts of wattage, shapes and sizes to fit the vast majority of standard light fittings, there really is no point in buying incandescent bulbs any more.

Incandescent bulbs not only consume excessive energy but also a hole in your wallet in comparison. Some countries, including the USA and Australia, have also officially sounded the death-knell for incandescent bulbs; phasing them out over the next few years.

But a new predicament faces us – what to do with the bulb once it’s completed its useful life. I’ve had several emails on this topic. It’s been great to see environmentally conscious people thinking past the purchase!

Thankfully, CFL’s last for a very long time – 2-5 years. I’ve had some bulbs last well beyond that. Given their growing popularity though, it does mean we are faced with hundreds millions of spent CFL’s needing to be responsibly disposed of or preferably recycled annually.

Don’t bin your CFL’s

Throwing CFL’s in the bin isn’t a good idea. Aside from the waste of materials, there is one rather unsettling issue with compact fluorescent lamps –  they contain a small amount of mercury; approximately 3-5 milligrams. It’s a tiny amount, about the size of the very tip a ballpoint pen and far less than what is present in a watch battery. Still, a hundred million of these small amounts does become a significant issue.

There has been quite a bit of panic about mercury in CFL’s; but I’d like to point out that coal fired electricity production generates mercury in the form of emissions that go straight into the atmosphere.

CFL mercury levels are less than the additional mercury emissions involved in powering a comparable incandescent globe over the same period of a CFL’s lifespan. In addition to that, there’s all the other negative environmental impacts associated with coal-fired electricity generation; even so called “clean-coal“. The less coal burned, the better.

Additionally, at the end of a CFL bulb’s life, little of the mercury remains in its most toxic form. Regardless, given the fragility of the bulbs; caution is necessary and mercury shouldn’t wind up in landfill at any time and at any level. Mercury is a powerful toxin that contaminates earth, air and water and accumulates in animal tissue.

Keep CFL’s out of regular recycling

You should also not place lamps in your regular recycling collection because they can shatter while being transported or sorted and contaminate recyclable items; plus put recycling center staff at risk.

How to dispose of CFL’s

The best way to find out how you can recycle or safely dispose of CFL’s is to contact your local waste authority for advice.

If you’re in the USA, the EPA page on bulb disposal provides a regularly updated comprehensive list of recycling centers and options around the nation. Earth911.org is also an excellent resource where you can run a search on your zip code for recycling centers.

Another avenue to investigate is to contact your electricity authority – some utilities are providing their customers with CFL recycling or advisory services.

Yet another option is to ask the retailer who supplies your bulbs if they have a recycling program – some larger retailers have programs in place already. It’s a good opportunity to put pressure on retailers who don’t, by letting them know you’ll buy your bulbs from outlets that do provide this facility.

If all of the above proves fruitless; hang onto the bulbs by placing them in a crush-proof container. The issue of mercury in bulbs will become more pressing and as the green revolution really starts kicking into gear; governments and manufacturers will be forced to provide proper facilities.

What if you break a CFL?

The Australian Department of Environment offers the following advice:

– Open windows in the room to air out fo 15 minutes before cleaning up
– Don’t use a vacuum as this could spread mercury into the air
– Wear gloves when cleaning up
– Use a disposable brush to gently sweep up fragments
– Use a moist paper towel to help pick up remaining tiny fragments
– Wrap the pieces up in layers of newspaper and place in a sturdy sealable bag or container along with anything used to clean up the mess.

The advice is then to place the container or bag in your rubbish bin, but I feel that perhaps it should be treated as hazardous chemical waste; i.e. stored safely until such time that it can be taken to a hazardous chemical disposal facility. Given all that messing around, it just pays to be extra careful when handling a CFL bulb :).

If the idea of using anything containing mercury really bothers you or you don’t particularly like CFL’s for other reasons, perhaps consider LED lighting as a mercury-free alternative. LED’s are even more energy efficient and have a longer lifespan than compact fluorescent lamps. Other alternatives are halogen or xenon hybrid bulbs. If you prevously used incandescent bulbs for heat applications, there are heat bulbs available that are more efficient.