The typical American home has between 50 and 100 light bulb sockets. That means the typical American goes through a lot of light bulbs every year.
When a light bulb burns out in your home, you have several choices for replacing it. There are old-fashioned incandescent bulbs and more modern ones like compact fluorescents and LEDs. How you recycle your old, burned-out light bulbs depends on its type. Unfortunately there are no programs to recycle incandescent bulbs. On the other hand, you are legally required to recycle compact fluorescent light bulbs in several states.
How to recycle compact fluorescent light bulbs
For several years, compact fluorescent light bulbs (also known as CFLs) were touted as the best choice for eco-friendly consumers because they are much more energy efficient than typical light bulbs. But there is a big problem with CFL bulbs: they contain mercury, which is definitely not good for the environment or human health. Exposure to mercury can cause developmental problems in unborn children. In adults, side effects of mercury exposure include muscle weakness, speech and vision impairment, lack of coordination – even death in some cases. In addition, many people do not like CFL light bulbs because they find the color of the light unflattering, the bulbs take a long time to light up, and they have an unusual shape.
When it comes time to dispose of CFL light bulbs for whatever reason, make sure you get them to a recycling facility. Seven states, including Maine and California, require this by law. Even in states where this is not required, it’s the right thing to do.
There are several places to look for CFL light bulb recycling facilities. Your local hazardous waste management facility should be able to take them. Several large retailers, including IKEA, Home Depot and TrueValue, accept CFLs in certain communities (check with your local store before you go to make sure they will really take them). 1800Recycling’s Recycle Search tool
can help you identify specific places in your community that take CFLs.
If you cannot find anywhere to recycle CFLs, you can mail them to a recycler. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) provides a list of companies that accept CFL light bulbs by mail.
Fluorescent light tubes, like the ones found in many office buildings and shopping centers, also contain mercury. They need to be recycled in the same manner as CFL bulbs.
CFL light bulbs should be recycled even if they break. Make sure you handle clean-up very carefully so the mercury does not affect you or your family. The EPA has a handy guide
for proper clean-up and disposal of broken CFLs.
How to recycle LED light bulbs
These days the light bulb of choice seems to be light-emitting diode bulbs (more commonly known as LEDs). The bulbs are more energy efficient and last longer than CFLs. But like CFLs, they are not for everyone. Because the light is directional, LEDs do not work well in some applications like table lamps. Some people object to their brightness, and they can be quite expensive.
While LED light bulbs do not contain mercury, many do contain other hazardous substances such as lead and arsenic. Despite this, most communities do not require you to recycle LEDs.
If you want to recycle LED light bulbs and ensure those dangerous substances do not enter the waste stream, you may have to hunt for a proper recycling facility. There are no major national LED recycling programs, but some communities (such as Metro Waste Authority in Iowa City) offer them to local residents. 1800Recycling’s Recycle Search tool
may be able to help you find a local LED recycling company. You can also call your solid waste management district and see if they have any ideas.
The easiest type of LED lights to recycle are actually Christmas lights. There are several places that will take them at no charge through the mail. Check out companies such as HolidayLEDs.com
and Environmental LED.
How to recycle incandescent light bulbs
There are no programs available to recycle incandescent light bulbs, so you will need to put them in the trash. You might consider wrapping the light bulb in something so any broken glass cannot rip through the bag and injure sanitation workers.
As tempting as it may seem, do not place incandescent light bulbs in your glass recycling bin. The glass in the bulb has a different melting temperature than the glass in jars or bottles. A single light bulb can ruin a whole batch of perfectly recyclable glass.
Light bulbs in craft projects
Incandescent light bulbs can be used in many craft projects. Pinterest shows light bulbs transformed into vases, ornaments, ships in a bottle, and terrariums. Christmas lights can be used in jewelry or even to top Christmas gifts. Do not take CLFs and LEDs apart to use them in craft projects, as the hazardous materials can contaminate your home.