As we look towards a more energy-conscious and sustainable future, compact fluorescent lighting (CFL) and light-emitting diodes (LED) lighting offer substantial energy savings. However, unlike our old-fashioned incandescent bulbs, these CFLs and LEDs contain hazardous materials such as mercury, lead, and arsenic. You’re not alone in wondering exactly how to dispose of these light bulbs.

You can dispose of incandescent and halogen light bulbs in regular trash cans as long as they’re covered to prevent injury to waste services personnel. CFLs and LEDs must be disposed of more carefully as they contain mercury, lead, and arsenic which are bad for the environment.

Although it’s only illegal to throw away CFLs in regular trash in seven states, other states are sure to follow. CFLs and LEDs should be responsibly recycled to protect ourselves and the environment. This article will cover some ways you may safely dispose of your used or broken light bulbs.

Can You Just Throw Away Light Bulbs?

You may throw away halogen and incandescent bulbs in your trash as they don’t contain hazardous waste. However, these bulbs shouldn’t go in your glass recycling bin as they contain metal. CFL lamps, LEDs, and mercury-containing lamps are hazardous waste, and you shouldn’t throw them out. 

Incandescent and halogen lights aren’t toxic to humans or the environment, and you may discard them in your regular trash. However, you should always place the glass in a small cardboard box if you can or wrap it securely in a protective layer to prevent injury to waste management workers.

As innocent as these lightbulbs appear, they have a deadly cost to our energy-depleted environment. Phasing out the old school incandescent bulb for its CFL and LED counterparts has a considerable effect on our planet.

Disposing of LED Light Bulbs

Light-emitting diodes or LED bulbs produce light by passing an electric current through a semiconductor called a diode. The diode emits light in the form of photons released by electroluminescence. The LED is highly durable and long-lasting, with a lifespan between 35,000 and 50,000 hours, approximately 50 times longer than the average incandescent bulb.

Despite the LEDs’ considerable energy savings, the downside of LEDs is that they contain harmful metals that are bad for the environment.  In a clinical study, researchers found that all the tested LEDs (besides the low-intensity yellow LEDs) contains higher than regulatory:

  • Arsenic
  • Copper
  • Lead
  • Nickel
  • Silver

How To Dispose of Used LEDs

You may not throw LEDs out in the trash as they contain harmful trace elements. An excellent suggestion is to try your big name stores such as:

  • Ikea
  • Lowes
  • Home Depot

These stores have multiple sites to dispose of your used LEDs in marked collection containers, where they’ll then undertake to dispose of these potentially harmful materials safely.

You may contact your local waste collection agencies for their advice about LED disposal. Earth911 is an excellent resource to find the scheduled collection and drop-off point for hazardous waste.

Light bulbs awaiting disposal.

Disposing of Fluorescent Light Bulbs

Fluorescent light bulbs produce light when an electric current passes between two electrodes in a tube filled with mercury vapor and inert gasses such as krypton and argon. The mercury vapors in an excited state generate ultraviolet light on a fluorescent coating inside the tube.

Compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) are a smaller, more efficient version of the linear fluorescent lights often found in schools and offices. The compact fluorescent fits into a standard bulb socket and has an internal ballast, unlike the longer linear fluorescent bulbs.

CFLs are highly energy-saving and last up to ten times longer than a traditional incandescent bulb, with an average lifespan of 10,000 to 15,000 hours. However, the mercury contained in the vapor is a highly hazardous waste, and you should not throw either the tube or compact bulbs out in your trash.

How To Dispose of CFLs and FLs

As of 2018, many states adopted the law that users must recycle their fluorescent tubes responsibly and safely. These states included:

Below are several ways to recycle your CFLs and fluorescent bulbs without causing harm to other people and the environment:

  • Source your local retailers for CFL collection sites or drop-off facilities. Ikea, Lowes, and Home Depot offer these services throughout most states.
  • Some bulb manufacturers offer pre-labeled mail-back services that enable you to send back your harmful waste in the mail. Manufacturers typically include the transport cost in the kit itself.
  • Contact your local waste collection agency for advice. Regarding your CFL disposal, or use Earth911 to find a scheduled drop-off or pick-up point in your area.

What To Do if Your CFL Lamp Shatters

Mercury is toxic to humans, animals, and children. If your CFL lamp shatters, you should follow the US Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) protocol in treating the area and keeping yourself from harmful mercury inhalation. If you should experience a linear fluorescent light or CFL breakage, you should follow these steps.

Pre Clean Up

  1. Open a window and vacate the room (including pets) for 15 minutes.
  2. Shut off your air conditioning system or forced air heating if applicable.
  3. Collect the disposable material you need to remove the CFL debris, such as stiff paper and cardboard, duct/sticky tape, and resealable plastic bags.

During Clean up

  1. Don’t use a vacuum as this may spread the mercury powder and vapor.
  2. Wearing rubber gloves, remove the particles you can by hand using disposable towels and wipes.
  3. Be thorough in collecting all the CFL debris using stiff cardboard and sticky tape for smaller particles.
  4. Place the collected materials in a glass jar or double sealed plastic bag.

After Clean Up

  1. Place all the collected materials you used to clean the CFL waste and place them outdoors in a secure container.
  2. Check your local government disposal regulations. Even if your local laws permit you to dispose of your CFL waste in your regular trash, the environmentally-conscious choice would be to find a recycling point in your area to dispose of the waste safely.

Disposing of Mercury Light Bulbs

Besides the linear and compact fluorescent lights, there are several mercury-based lighting sources. These lighting sources include High-Intensity bulbs or HIDs typically used as street lights, floodlights, and industrial lighting. These include:

  • Mercury vapor bulbs
  • Metal halide bulbs
  • High-pressure sodium bulbs

Intact, these light sources aren’t toxic, but they may pose a health hazard to humans and the environment when broken.

How To Dispose of Mercury Light Bulbs

Inhaling the vapor from broken mercury light bulbs may be harmful to your health, and you should take care when handling the waste. Once you’ve safely enclosed the remnant of the light, it would be best if you sourced a recycling facility that deals explicitly with such mercury-based waste products.

It would be best not to throw used mercury-based light bulbs out in the regular trash as the byproducts are toxic to humans, plants, and our environment. You may source drop-off collection sites such as those provided by Home Depot and Lowes.

Alternatively, you may inquire from your local waste management facility on the local protocols for disposing of mercury-based light bulb waste.

You may also use Earth911 to source recycling facilities in your area and scheduled collections of drop-off points for your used or broken mercury light bulb. If you’re present when an industrial-grade mercury vapor, halide, or sodium light breaks, follow the USEPA protocols on safe cleaning practices.  

What Are the Dangers of Disposing Light Bulbs?

Disposing of incandescent and halogen bulbs pose little environmental threat beyond the carbon emissions in their production. However, other types of lamps, particularly compact fluorescent lights (CFLs) that contain mercury, are highly toxic to both humans and the environment.

CFL lamps use low-pressure mercury vapor gas to produce visible light, and these excited mercury atoms produce short-wave ultraviolet lights that cause the phosphor to fluoresce. Mercury is thus present in these energy-saving bulbs in the form of elemental mercury.

It seems counterintuitive to replace the relatively harmless incandescent bulb with a more toxic mercury-based light source, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Coal-burning and fossil fuels used in incandescent bulb production account for a far more significant amount of airborne mercury release into the environment.

However, mercury and its byproduct methylmercury do pose environmental dangers. Mercury isn’t only highly toxic to humans. Once thrown in the trash, it may also wreak havoc on the ecosystem once mercury reaches the landfills and leaks into water sources.

Once released into the environment, the mercury converts to methylmercury, a highly toxic chemical with countless adverse effects on human health and the environment.

Environmental Effects of CFL Leached Methylmercury

  • Methylmercury accumulates as you move up the food chain. Plankton takes up the toxin, and in turn, fish consume the plankton. Humans and animals consume the fish, and the methylmercury accumulates in their human tissues.
  • Scientists have found methylmercury in animals as diverse as alligators, otters, and Florida panthers. Effects on animal life include stunted growth, reproductive impairments, and death.
  • Mercury breaks down the photosynthesis process in plant life necessary for growth and life.

Human Toxicity of CFL Mercury

  • Breakage of a CFL in a room exposes those nearby to mercury by inhalation and oral intake. Most of the Hg0 vapor goes into the lungs or the gastrointestinal tract to a lesser extent.
  • Mercury may cause central nervous system and kidney damage depending on exposure and neurotoxic symptoms such as tremors.
  • Mercury inhibits cell division and migration, making unborn children particularly susceptible to developmental damage.

What’s more, according to the EPA, prolonged exposure to mercury includes symptoms such as:

  • Emotional changes such as irritability and mood swings
  • Neuro-muscular weakness such as muscle wastage and twitching
  • Headaches
  • Nerve disorders
  • Skin rashes and dermatitis.

Which Light Bulbs Contain Mercury?

Fluorescent bulbs are their compact counterparts and aren’t the only light bulb that contains harmful mercury elements. Industrial lighting particularly is host to several forms of mercury-based lighting systems.

These lighting types include the following light bulb types:

Fluorescent Light Bulbs

  • U tube, linear, and circline type bulbs
  • Bug zapper type lighting
  • Black lights
  • Ultraviolet lighting
  • Light for tanning purposes
  • Bulbs with high-intensity output
  • Fluorescent cold cathode type lights

High-Intensity Bulbs

  • Metal halide based lights
  • Ceramic metal halide lamps
  • High-pressure sodium type bulbs
  • Mercury vapor bulbs
  • Neon light bulbs

Why CFLs and LEDs Are Better if They’re Toxic

One year without incandescent bulbs potentially saves Europe 25 million tonnes of CO2 emissions in only one year. Globally, the figures could be four to five times more. These immense energy savings are not all; decreased light bulb production also reduces the release of mercury into the atmosphere by coal and fossil fuel burning industries.

CFLs and LEDs have substantially longer lifespans than the old incandescent bulbs. The result is an enormous lessening of the industrial pollutants released in incandescent bulb manufacture. The potential harm of CFLs and LED waste is disproportionately small compared to the pollutants released in incandescent bulb manufacturers.

Can You Recycle Light Bulbs at Home Depot or Lowes?

You can recycle your CFL bulbs at Home Depot and Lowes, which offer recycling centers to safely and efficiently dispose of this harmful waste. Visit your nearest allocated recycling point and take your CFL waste to the designated in-store collection bin.

Home Depot CFL Recycling

Home Depot has offered its free recycling services since 2008 and now provided the public with facilities in 1,973 US locations. Typically, you’ll find an orange container designated for CFLs with the appropriate bag for disposal. Home Depot then uses an established environmental management service to transport and recycle waste safely.

Lowes CFL Recycling

Lowes allows the public to bring their CFL waste for free recycling. They offer over 1,700 US recycling points for the safe disposal of CFLs, batteries, cell phones, and various hazardous waste. You may drop your used bulbs in the appropriate store recycling bin, and Lowes ensures their safe transportation and recycling.

Conclusion

Although it’s not strictly illegal in all states, throwing your LEDs and CFLs in regular trash is harmful to our environment. Therefore, the best route would be to ensure the destructive element of your long-life light bulbs don’t end up in nature (and possibly in your body.) Take advantage of the above recycling options for a cleaner future.

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