CFL Bulbs (Disposal + Recycle Guide)

CFL Bulbs

Compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs) are an eco-friendly lighting option that can help you save energy and money. However, like other light bulbs, they will eventually burn out, at which time you will need to know how to properly dispose of them. Because CFLs contain mercury and cannot be thrown away anywhere in the state of California, use this guide to properly dispose of your unwanted or broken bulbs.

What Are CFL Light Bulbs?

Compact fluorescent bulbs, which are more commonly known as CFL bulbs or CFLs, use fluorescent technology to create light. Unlike older, tubular fluorescent bulbs, CFL light bulbs have a twisted tube that allows them to produce abundant light in a smaller package. This advancement in fluorescent lighting, as well as an integrated-ballast design that can be screwed into a regular light socket, allowed these more-efficient bulbs to be used in the same fixtures we used to fit with incandescent bulbs.

Switching from incandescent bulbs to CFLs allowed folks to save as much as 40% on their electricity bills while reducing their home’s environmental impact. For several years, CFL light bulbs were considered the eco-friendly, money-saving option of choice for lighting your home.

While Americans were being introduced to fluorescent lighting technology as early as the 1930s, it was not until the 1980s that compact fluorescent bulbs began to make their way into homes. These early CFLs were expensive, awkward, and inconsistent, but they were also far more energy efficient than older incandescent bulbs.

Over the years, the price dropped drastically, technological advancements made CFLs even more efficient, performance improved, and CFL bulbs became the norm in households and businesses across the country.

How to Recycle + Dispose of CFL Light Bulbs

CFL bulbs can last up to about 10 years. While this is a much longer lifespan than that of incandescent bulbs, CFLs will eventually burn out and need to be replaced. Plus, now that LED bulbs are widely available and are becoming more affordable, many folks are switching out their CFL bulbs for LEDs before the CFLs burn out. LED (light emitting diode) bulbs are even more efficient than CFL bulbs and can last more than twice as long, so this option allows people to lower their utility bills and reduce their environmental impact by simply changing out their bulbs for this eco-friendlier option.

If you are switching to LED lighting or have burnt-out CFLs, it is important that you do not simply throw your old light bulbs in the trash. All CFL light bulbs contain a small amount of mercury. When you are using intact CFL bulbs in your home, this mercury is not dangerous, but if a bulb is broken, that mercury is released. Since mercury is toxic, let’s first go over what to do if a CFL bulb breaks in your home.

How to Dispose of Broken CFL Bulbs

If a CFL bulb breaks, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recommends removing people and animals from the room, airing the room out, and shutting off your HVAC system before cleaning up the glass.

The next step is to make sure you pick up all of the glass by using some combination of cardboard, stiff paper, sticky tape, and damp paper towels. Place the cleaning materials and glass in a sealable container, such as a mason jar. Do not use a vacuum, since this could spread mercury within your home.

Once you have cleaned up the broken bulb and have placed the mason jar outside, contact your local government to see if there are laws determining how you must dispose of broken CFLs. Some areas allow you to simply throw them in the trash, while others require taking them to a recycling facility.

You can read the complete instructions for cleaning up a broken CFL here.

How to Dispose of Working CFL Bulbs

If your CFL bulbs are intact and working fine, but you still need to get rid of them because you are switching to more-efficient LED bulbs, you definitely do not want to throw them away and should not recycle them.

Recycling is an option, but it would be better to keep these bulbs in use for the duration of their useful lifespan. Because of this, the best option for getting rid of working CFLs is to give them away. You can give them to friends or family members, or you can look for a local, charitable organization to which you can donate them.

How to Recycle CFL Bulbs

Do not throw CFL bulbs in the trash. CFLs are delicate, and if they break in the landfill, mercury will be released and could be introduced into the groundwater. Additionally, according to Earth911, “Mercury is a precious metal in limited supply, so reusing even the trace amounts in a CFL in new products is crucial.”

When CFL bulbs are recycled, they are sent to special recycling centers where the components are separated so that the mercury can be reused, the metal can be scrapped, and the class can be recycled (or, technically, downcycled) into other products.

In some areas, disposal of CFLs in landfills is prohibited and recycling is the only option. California is one of a handful of states that bans this practice statewide. This means that California residents must recycle their CFL light bulbs.

The easiest way to do this is to take advantage of curbside collection or bulb drop-offs offered through your local waste management service. So, your first step should be to contact your local waste management provider to see if this is available.

If these options are not available in your area, your next easiest option is to take your burnt-out bulbs to the nearest CFL recycling center. If you live near a Lowes, Home Depot or IKEA, you can simply take them there. Otherwise, you can visit earth911.com or recyclceabulb.com to search for local retailers that offer CFL recycling. You can also call (877) EARTH911 to find recycling centers near you.

Most people live in an area that has local recycling centers, but if this is not the case, you can find a list of mail-in bulb recycling programs on the EPA website.

If you are transporting your bulbs to a recycling center, place each bulb in a sealed plastic bag. This will help contain the mercury if one or more of your bulbs breaks on the way there.