Fluorescent light bulbs pose a danger to the environment because they contain mercury, a highly toxic substance. Several states require that people recycle fluorescent light bulbs. Even in states where placing fluorescent light bulbs in the trash is legal, most people are committed to finding places to recycle them. Recycling centers and private businesses have responded to that demand, and most communities have at least one place to recycle fluorescent light bulbs.
What are fluorescent light bulbs?
Fluorescent light bulbs are made of glass tubes that contain argon gas, mercury vapor and a substance called phosphor. When electricity is introduced through a device known as a ballast, it creates ultraviolet light that excites the phosphor and causes it to “fluoresce,” or glow. That process creates the light that brightens your home – and gives the bulb its name.
There are two main types of fluorescent light bulbs: fluorescent tubes and compact fluorescent lights (also known as CFLs). Fluorescent tubes were first invented in the 1930s and provided an energy efficient way to light homes and offices. They also developed a reputation for poor light quality (often flickering and flashing) and a buzzing noise that gave workers pounding headaches. Thanks to technological advances, fluorescent lights are now available in a range of light colors, including soft white, bright white and daylight. The light fixtures are also much quieter.
CFLs became widely available in the 1980s, when companies figured out how to wind up and condense the glass tubes that make fluorescent lights function. For years, they were marketed as the best choice for eco-friendly consumers because of their superior energy efficiency. However, CFL light bulbs have declined in popularity in recent years. Light-emitting diode bulbs (more commonly known as LEDs) are even more energy efficient and last longer, which has undercut CFLs’ advantages. Despite changes to the way CFLs are made, many people still find the color of the light unflattering. They also dislike the fact that the bulbs take a long time to turn all the way on and are unimpressed by their “ice cream cone” appearance.
Why should I recycle fluorescent light bulbs?
From an environmental standpoint, the bigger problem with fluorescent light bulbs is they contain mercury. Exposure to mercury, a heavy metal, 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.
People who handle fluorescent light bulbs are not exposed to mercury unless the bulb gets broken – but that can easily happen when bulbs are placed in the trash. Since the element is in vapor form, it can easily escape into the air and be breathed in. Although newer fluorescent light bulbs contain a much smaller amount of mercury, it is still enough to harm people and animals. Older fluorescent light bulbs sometimes have much more mercury in them and are particularly important to dispose of properly.
Seven states (including California, Massachusetts and Rhode Island) require residents to recycle fluorescent light bulbs. Even in states where fluorescent light bulbs are not regulated by law, recycling them is the right thing to do.
How to recycle fluorescent light bulbs
Depending on the size of your community, you should have one or several places to take burned out fluorescent light bulbs. Your first stop should be your local hazardous waste management facility. Chicago and Petaluma, California, are just a few examples of cities with permanent fluorescent light bulb collection centers.
Several large retailers, including IKEA, Lowes and TrueValue, accept CFLs in certain communities. It is worth calling your local store before you go to make sure they will really take them. Even stores that take the bulbs sometimes run out of room to store them.
Your utility can be a source of information about fluorescent light bulb recycling. Avista Utilities in the Spokane area keeps a list of fluorescent light bulb collection centers.
A website called RecycleABulb.com
has a database that lists free CFL collection centers all over the country. Use its search tool to find the recycler nearest you. LampRecycle.com
has a similar listing, although its website is harder to navigate. In addition, RecycleNation’s Recycle Search
tool can help you identify specific places in your community that take fluorescent light bulbs.
If your fluorescent light bulbs are still working, check with local schools or nonprofits to see if they can use them in their classrooms or offices.
How to recycle broken fluorescent light bulbs
Fluorescent light bulbs should be recycled even if they break. Make sure you handle cleanup very carefully so you do not breathe in the mercury. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has a handy guide
for properly cleaning up and disposing of broken fluorescent light bulbs.
How to recycle fluorescent light fixtures
Older ballasts, or light fixtures, that hold fluorescent light tubes can contain polychlorinated biphenyls. Also known as PCBs, these chemicals are extremely toxic and were banned in the United States in 1979.
If your light fixture was produced before 1979, you will need to take it to your local household hazardous waste facility for disposal. This program will be managed by your city or county’s solid waste management program. If the light fixture was manufactured after 1979, it can probably be recycled. Check with you solid waste management agency to determine the best place to take the fixture.