Compact fluorescent bulbs are the one of most inexpensive and environmentally-sound lighting options for consumers. Fluorescent bulbs are more efficient than traditional, incandescent light bulbs because they utilize less energy and last longer than comparable incandescents. While LED bulbs have decreased in price, making them a more viable option for homeowners (certain companies such as G.E. are phasing out of the fluorescent bulb business entirely), there are still millions of fluorescent bulbs in homes world-wide. The question becomes: once these bulbs burn out, what are you supposed to do with them?
The problem with fluorescent bulbs is that they contain mercury. If fluorescent bulbs are thrown in the trash they are likely to break, which is a big issue because each bulb contains at least 4 mg of mercury. This doesn’t seem so scary when you consider that a household thermometer contains 500 mg of mercury, but to put it in perspective– it is enough to contaminate two Olympic-size swimming pools. That is why mercury can be harmful to the environment if it enters a landfill. When the bulbs break in the natural compacting of waste on a landfill, the mercury has the opportunity to leach into the water supply.
And while it is very important to protect the environment from mercury contamination, there is danger to beware of in your own home as well. If the bulb breaks, the mercury is released as a vapor that can be inhaled and as a fine powder or liquid droplets that can settle into carpets. If not properly cleaned up, this mercury can pose a serious health threat to children and pets. A lot of people are aware of this danger but don’t know what to do with the bulbs, aside from not throwing them in the garbage.
So, unsure what their options are, people collect their bulbs, letting them pile up until a convenient option arises. In fact, the EPA gives the advice “Rather than disposing of them with household trash, simply store expended CFLs until easy recycling is available in your area”. Well meaning as this advice seems, these bulbs should be disposed of as quickly as possible.
While used fluorescent lamps are sitting in a box in your garage or shed, the mercury within them is still contained. When the glass tube is intact, the mercury can be kept within them indefinitely. The probability of you, your children or your pet accidentally coming into contact this box increases the longer the bulbs pile up. More time sitting in storage equals greater chance of accidental breakage. Not to mention that many of us store paints, solvents and automotive chemicals in our utility areas. Broken bulbs could mix with other such household hazardous items in a contained area – your shed could be brewing all sorts of toxic concoctions.
Going the extra step to recycle your fluorescent bulbs correctly doesn’t have to be a huge pain. There are several convenient options available to dispose of fluorescent bulbs safely.
- Drop off at a household hazardous waste collection area
Most municipalities and towns have designated drop-off centers where you can safely dispose of your bulbs and other household hazardous waste. And in most town this service is free or carries a very modest administrative fee. Neighbors can join forces and bring all their fluorescent bulbs over at once and split the cost if it seems too much. Your local solid waste department can provide the details on their website or by phone.
Earth 911 also provides information on recycling programs and other community programs to benefit the environment. If you type in your zip code the site will tell you where hazardous waste drop-off areas are located and the collection schedule, if that is available in your town.
- Drop off at a Home Depot or other hardware store
If the hazardous waste drop off in your town is too far, Home Depot offers recycling programs for CFLs. Other hardware stores offer recycling for fluorescent lamps, batteries and used paint on a regional basis, as well. Check with your local retailer for details.
Another option is to purchase an EasyPak CFL Recycling Box from TerraCycle. These are inexpensive way to keep your home safe from the potential threat of mercury. The boxes are specially designed to meet crush-resistant standards and have an integrated lining that captures mercury, should a lamp break inside the box. Once you buy an EasyPak, there is a prepaid return label included so you can send your fluorescent bulbs safely back to TerraCycle for recycling.
This is a great option for getting rid of fluorescent bulbs safely in your own house, or even incorporating your community into the cause by having a designated spot to put bulbs for several households. By being more aware of the potential harm fluorescent light bulbs can cause, we can all keep our homes and communities safer while saving energy and protecting the environment.