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Recycling light bulbs

Many types of light bulbs contain metals such as mercury. Examples include:

  • tube- and compact-style fluorescent bulbs, including compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs);
  • mercury vapor bulbs – i.e., high-intensity lamps with blue-white, originally used as farmyard lights;
  • metal halide bulbs – i.e., newer, more efficient high-intensity lights; and
  • high and low-pressure sodium vapor bulbs – i.e., yellow lights used for outdoor security lighting.

Because these bulbs contain metals and toxic chemicals, they should be properly disposed of to avoid contaminating the environment or harming human health.

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs)

Compact fluorescent lamps are used extensively in homes and businesses, and, besides being recyclable, have many environmental benefits. Certified by the EPA's Energy Star Program [exit DNR], CFLs use up to 75 percent less energy than a standard incandescent bulb, can last up to 10 times longer and save $30 or more in electricity costs over the life of the bulb. The EPA estimates that standard coal-fired power plants emit 5.5 milligrams (mg) of mercury to power an incandescent bulb over its lifetime, in comparison with 1.2 mg of mercury to power a CFL over the same period of time. Using CFLs also results in reductions of other air emissions from power plants, including carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas.

Environmental impacts

Mercury, lead and other heavy metals all have the potential to be hazardous wastes. If bulbs are broken, burned or landfilled, metals and other toxic substances can be released into the environment. This risk makes it important to dispose of CFLs and other light bulbs properly.

Despite claims by manufacturers that "green" lamps can be safely landfilled, CFLs contain trace amounts of mercury and should be properly recycled. While the amount of mercury in each bulb is small, mercury pollutes the air and water when it ends up in landfills or incinerators.

For more information on mercury and its environmental and human health effects, visit EPA's Mercury in Your Environment [exit DNR].

Too valuable to waste

Metals such as mercury and lead in light bulbs are valuable and can be recovered for reuse. However, recycling rates for CFLs and other light bulbs are low. According to a November 2004 report by the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers, an estimated 70.8 percent of the mercury-containing lamps used by business and 98 percent of the lamps used in homes are NOT being recycled. As CFL use increases, it becomes even more important to make sure those lights do not end up in landfills or incinerators.

Legal requirements

Because of the mercury or other toxic substances in many light bulbs, businesses and institutions are responsible for properly storing and recycling used bulbs that are considered hazardous waste. This would include tube-style fluorescents and CFLs. For more information on the requirements for businesses and institutions, refer to ch. NR 673, Wis. Adm. Code [PDF exit DNR].

Wisconsin has no legal requirements for disposing of bulbs that come strictly from households. Household waste is not regulated as a hazardous waste identified in ch. NR 661, Wis. Adm. Code [PDF exit DNR]. However, the DNR encourages households to recycle bulbs when possible. Residents should check with their local county recycling program to see if there are local restrictions for light bulb disposal.

Preferred handling option: recycle!

In most communities, there are several options for recycling used bulbs, including tube-style fluorescents and CFLs. The DNR recommends that even "green" fluorescent bulbs be recycled because they often do contain measurable amounts of mercury.

For CFLs, in particular, there are several recycling options. First, try to buy your bulbs at a store that will take them back for recycling. A growing number of retailers, including several large national chains, are providing this service, which makes it very easy to recycle old bulbs when you go in for replacements. If this is not an option, look into a Clean Sweep program [exit DNR] in your area.

Find a recycler in your area

More information on CFLs, including environmental impacts and recycling

Safe handling

To safely handle your waste lamps and bulbs, place them in the box they were purchased in or the special cartons provided by a recycler. For CFLs, make sure used bulbs are placed in sturdy cartons and store them in a safe place to avoid breakage.

The breakage of an individual CFL bulb does not require an official hazardous material response. Visit EPA's Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs) page [exit DNR] to learn about cleaning up broken CFLs.

For more detailed handling requirements, refer to ch. NR 673, Wis. Adm. Code [PDF exit DNR].