Ads and packaging materials for compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) proclaim that they use much less energy and last much longer than standard incandescent bulbs. However, if you read the fine print on the packaging or find the notice on the base of each bulb, you’ll see that it contains mercury.
While that may raise an alarm in your mind, there’s no need to worry. The amount of mercury inside the glass tubes of an average CFL is miniscule—about the equivalent of the tip of a ballpoint pen―and it’s especially small when compared to other items you may have around your home. The amount of mercury in a CFL runs about 4-5 milligrams (mg), while a glass fever thermometer contains 500 mg, and an old-style thermostat could contain up to 3,000 mg.
CFLs are safe to handle and use in your home, and they release no mercury when in operation. Even if you break a CFL, the amount of mercury that may become airborne poses a very low risk of exposure, says ENERGY STAR. (To prevent breakage, carefully unpack a CFL, and always screw and unscrew the bulb by its base.) When CFLs burn out or break, the best course of action is to recycle them.
CFLs fall into the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) category of Household Hazardous Waste (HHW), but there’s no federal (or Tennessee) requirement that the bulbs be recycled. There are several HHW recycling centers in our state that accept CFLs. Some hardware stores and other retailers may have CFL recycling buckets on hand. And you may be able to dispose of CFLs during your community’s annual hazardous waste collection event.
To find out if there’s a facility or store near you that accepts CFLs, go to the Earth 911 website at www.earth911.org, or call 800-CLEANUP. Be sure to call the facility or store that’s listed before you make the trip, to ensure that it allows homeowners or apartment dwellers to drop off CFLs.
If one of these recycling options is not available to you, you may put burned out or broken CFLs with your regular trash—but in no case should you burn or incinerate them. Here’s what EPA says about properly disposing of CFLs.
- Burned-out CFLs: Put the CFL in a sealed plastic bag, and place it with your regular trash.
- Broken CFLs: If you break a CFL in your home, open nearby windows to disperse any vapor that may escape, and carefully sweep up the glass shards. (Don’t use your hands!) Wipe the area with a damp paper towel to remove glass fragments; don’t use a vacuum cleaner. Put the fragments, the base of the bulb, and the paper towel in a sealed plastic bag, and place it with your regular trash.
CFLs are a great idea. They’ll help you cut your utility bills, and they’ll help reduce the need for electricity production. However, to create the maximum benefit for the environment, recycling burned-out and broken CFLs makes sense.
Source: Energy Star, NRDC
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