recycle light bulbs

The importance of recycling light bulbs

Light bulbs — particularly the highly efficient, long-lasting compact fluorescent bulbs sold in stores today — are found by the dozen in American homes. Each year, U.S. retailers sell more than 300 million new CFL bulbs, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s website. These light bulbs use about 75% less electricity than traditional incandescent bulbs, conserving at least $6 in energy per bulb per year, Energy Star estimates, and $40 over the life of the bulb. However, with so many bulbs in use (the average American home has 50 light bulbs screwed in at one time) a new, potentially hazardous waste stream has been created. Recycling can help lessen the impact of the light bulbs on the environment and save landfill space.

The environmental impact of light bulbs

When states and power companies roll out new energy-saving mandates, light bulbs are often a main component of the plan. Why? Changing light bulb requirements is an easy and cost-effective way to impact consumers’ behavior. Purchasing new bulbs is a task everyone has to do eventually — light bulbs burn out and need to be replaced on a monthly basis in many homes. The savings from all of those new bulbs adds up when installed in millions of homes. State programs in California and Massachusetts, for example, attribute more than 50% of their annual energy savings to residents switching to energy-efficient CFL bulbs as their old incandescent lamps burn out. These bulbs make huge impacts nationwide. The National Resources Defense Council says new energy-efficiency standards enacted by the federal government in 2012 lead to the savings of $100 to $200 per year in energy costs for each household and mean that the need for energy produced by about 30 large power plants will be reduced. About 100 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution will be eliminated each year as well, the agency estimates.

Why you should recycle light bulbs

Millions of new bulbs means hundreds, maybe thousands of tons of new waste heading to landfills each year. However, the very thing that makes the new bulbs so efficient — mercury phosphorous powder — makes them hazardous to the environment. Nearly all of a CFL bulb can be recycled. The largest recyclable portion, the glass casing, accounts for about 96% of a bulb’s weight and is completely recyclable. The remaining 4% of a CFL’s weight is composed of metal (usually aluminum) and phosphor powder and mercury. Many of the companies that recycle the bulbs, like Veolia for example, have developed high-tech methods of recycling the potentially hazardous chemicals inside the bulbs to keep the environment and workers safe. The amount of mercury contained in household CFLs is quite small — between 1 and 5 milligrams per bulb. However, it is important to collect and recycle the bulbs properly to keep saving energy and resources. When CFLs are sent to the landfill, mercury can contaminate soil and water supplies. It is very important to handle the materials safely and properly. In some areas, including California, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Vermont and Washington, mercury-containing products, including CFLs, are banned from state landfills, meaning recycling is required. Check to see if your area has regulations concerning CFL bulbs.

The light bulb recycling process

Retailers, waste companies and mail-back services all offer free or low-cost recycling of unbroken CFL bulbs. National retailers Home Depot, Lowes and IKEA, and hardware stores like Ace, Aubuchon and TrueValue all offer in-store programs. Many of these retailers have drop-off boxes for unbroken bulbs in their entryways, or have employees have been trained in accepting the material from customers. Check our recycling location search for a recycling option near you. If you are unable to visit a recycling location, or do not have a location nearby, several companies offer mail-in packages for recycling. You fill a container provided by the service with used bulbs and then mail the container back. Some of the programs available include BakPak Mail-Back Recycling,,, RecycleKits from AERC Recycling, RecyclePak from Veolia and Think Green From Home, operated by Waste Management. These services often have a charge associated with the container and shipping cost. For example, a 13-bulb kit from Waste Management costs about $20 including shipping.

Storing light bulbs safely in the home

While it is a good idea to recycle a used CFL as soon as it has burned out, sometimes it is necessary to store the bulbs until you can get to a recycling and collection center. If you need to store unbroken CFLs, it is important to take some precautions to prevent the bulbs from breaking. First, find a good-sized container that can be sealed. Examples would include a small storage tote or a plastic coffee can. Next, fill the container with the used bulbs. Seal with an airtight lid when not placing new bulbs inside. Store the container in a safe location, like a seldom-used storage space or shelf. This will cut down on the likelihood of knocking the container over or accidental damage. When the container is full, take it to a recycling center and recycle the bulbs.

What if a CFL bulb breaks?

When CFLs were first introduced, there was great (and sometimes overblow) concern of mercury poisoning when they were inadvertently broken. CFL bulbs contain 1 to 5 milligrams of mercury, and while there is still a concern, there is no need to call HAZMAT or other authorities to clean the mess. The EPA offers the following steps to clean a broken CFL bulb:
  1. Have people and pets leave the room.
  2. Air out the room for five to 10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.
  3. Shut off the central forced-air heating/air-conditioning system, if you have one.
  4. Use materials to clean up the mess similar to a non-mercury-containing bulb, such as stiff paper or cardboard, tape, damp paper towels or a wet wipe. You will also need a glass jar with a metal lid or a sealable plastic bag, such as a freezer storage bag.
Safety precautions:
  1. Do not vacuum. Vacuum machines could spread mercury-laden vapors or powders.
  2. Collect all pieces of broken glass.
  3. Place cleanup materials in a sealable container or storage bag. Take any vacuum cleaner bags outdoors. Ensure your local government does not have specific rules and regulations.
  4. If you can, allow to room that contained the broken bulb to air out for several hours.