Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL) are a great alternative to traditional incandescent light bulbs. They are more energy-efficient, which means that they are more affordable. They last longer so they don’t require the hassle of frequent replacement. And in theory they are greener for the earth because they aren’t thrown out as often. However, CFL bulbs do contain mercury, which can be bad for the earth if the bulbs aren’t properly disposed of when you’re done using them. This guide tells you all that you need to know about the threat of mercury from CFL bulbs, how to recycle the bulbs properly and what your alternatives are if you don’t want to deal with recycling CFL bulbs.
Understanding the Mercury Issue
Each CFL bulb contains approximately five milligrams of mercury. If the bulb breaks then the mercury is released. This can be dangerous to the individual if the bulb breaks in the home. If it breaks in the landfill then it can be dangerous to the earth because the mercury then makes its way into storm water and the air. The Association of Lighting and Mercury Retailers reports that four tons of mercury leak into the environment each year because of improperly discarded CFL bulbs. Mercury dangers are cumulative so the more bulbs that end up in the landfill the more dangerous it is for the environment.
Does Your Bulb Contain Mercury?
CFL bulbs are the only household light bulb that currently contain mercury. You can always check the light bulb label before you purchase it to find out if it does have mercury, though. That’s because the new light bulb labels will specifically say if mercury is in the bulb.
How to Handle a Broken CFL Bulb at Home
Follow these tips if a CFL bulb breaks in your home:
- Immediately open all windows to help ventilate the room. Leave the room for at least fifteen minutes after doing this. If your central heating / AC is on then turn it off during this time to make sure that the mercury doesn’t circulate through the rest of the home.
- Put on gloves before handling the broken glass. Scoop all visible glass and powder into a glass jar with a metal lid. Alternatively you can scoop it into a sealed plastic bag.
- Use a thick tape, such as duct tape, to pick up the remaining shards and powder that you haven’t been able to scoop up by hand. When finished, place the tape into the glass jar or sealed plastic bag.
- Use a damp paper towel to go over the surface again to pick up any remaining remnants. Put this into the glass jar or sealed plastic bag.
- Never use a vacuum for cleaning up a broken CFL bulb. You run the risk of spreading the mercury throughout your home. You can vacuum as normal after the area is cleaned up but you should remove the vacuum bag immediately after doing so just to be on the safe side.
- Contact your local recycling center (see resources below) to find out if you can drop your broken CFL bulb. If not, check with your local government to find out what the proper disposal method is in your area. In the meantime, keep the glass jar or sealed plastic bag outside in a safe area.
Proper Recycling of CFL Bulbs
Sustainable Business reports that only 2% of individuals recycle their CFL light bulbs. This number is obviously far too low. What many people don’t realize is that it is actually really easy to recycle CFL bulbs in most areas of the nation. That’s because there are drop off recycling spots at numerous chain stores including IKEA, Home Depot, Lowe’s and Ace Hardware. All that you need to do is head to one of those stores and put the CFL bulbs in their recycling bin and the rest will be taken care of for you.
What if you don’t have one of those stores in your area or the one near you isn’t participating in the CFL bulb recycling program? Don’t fret. You can look up CFL bulb recyclers in your area using the following resources:
- LampRecycle.org. Just go to the site and enter your zip code to find the nearest recycler to you.
- Earth911.com. This site offers an online system similar to the one at LampRecycle.org.
- 1-800-CLEANUP. Just call the number and ask where the nearest CFL bulb recycler is in your area.
You might not realize this but many states actually require by law that you recycle your CFL bulbs. California, Massachusetts and Minnesota are just three examples of such states. This means that the people in those states who fail to recycle their bulbs are actually breaking the law!
Alternatives to CFL Bulbs
CFL bulbs are a popular choice these days. Incandescent bulbs are energy-inefficient and are being phased out anyway. (Learn more about the phase out here). Besides, it can be argued that they actually release more mercury than CFL bulbs do. The bulb itself doesn’t contain mercury but it uses more electricity than a CFL bulb does and Sustainable Business reports that the electricity produced by coal-fired power plants is actually the number one source of environment-threatening mercury emissions. So you’ll want to skip the incandescent bulbs.
However, you may find that you just don’t want to deal with the mercury issue. That’s okay; you do have another option. You can choose to get LED light bulbs for your home. Although they cost more initially than CFL bulbs do, they last a lot longer and save you money over time. Plus they don’t contain mercury. It’s a win-win situation.