How should you dispose of compact fluorescent light bulbs?
Fluorescent lighting is a long-lasting and energy-efficient choice. Fluorescent tubes or strips provide lighting to most schools, hospitals, office buildings and stores, while the smaller compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) are significantly more efficient than traditional incandescent light bulbs and are becoming popular in many homes.
Disposal of Mercury from CFLs
A small amount of elemental mercury remains an essential component of fluorescent bulbs—less than 5 mg per bulb. While elemental mercury is a hazardous material, there is only a risk of exposure if the fluorescent light bulb breaks. It is also important to consider that mercury is released by coal-burning power plants, and since fluorescent bulbs are much more energy efficient—they use 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs and last up to 10 times longer—their use reduces overall mercury emissions associated with power plants.
Under federal regulations, commercial and industrial users of fluorescent bulbs are required under federal law to manage mercury-containing light bulbs as a hazardous waste after they burn out. Households are generally exempted from these regulations, although some states may require the bulbs to be sorted with household hazardous waste or taken to a recycling facility. You can find out what household hazardous waste collection and recycling programs are available in your area by visiting U.S. EPA or Earth 911.
Regardless of your local laws, CFLs should not be thrown out with regular household trash, where they will end up in landfills or incinerators. Recycling is the best and most environmentally responsible method of disposal for fluorescent bulbs.
Recycling fluorescent light bulbs
Virtually all components of a fluorescent bulb can be recycled—the metal end caps are sold as scrap metal; the glass tubing is remanufactured into new glass products; and the mercury and phosphor are recovered and reused for new light bulbs.
Many bulb-manufacturers offer take-back programs, in which burnt-out lamps can be mailed in for recycling free of charge. Visit the manufacturers’ web site for more information. Waste Management offers a national service where they will accept bulbs for recycling by mail. In addition, some retailers, such as Home Depot, IKEA and True Value, also accept the light bulbs for recycling year-round, while others, such as Wal-Mart, hold special take-back days. Be sure to carefully package the bulbs to make sure they do not break in transit. One easy way is to box them up in the packaging from your new light bulbs.
Once the light bulbs are collected, they are sent to recycling facilities across the country for processing. The light bulbs are mechanically crushed and sorted into their separate components. A vacuum system is usually used to ensure that toxic substances are not released into the air when the bulbs are crushed.
(sources: General Electric; EPA; Earth 911; IKEA; Home Depot; Waste Management)
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