how to dispose of light bulbs

US consumers alone buy around 5.5 million light bulbs every year. But what should we do with all these bulbs once they are finished with them?

When it comes to how to dispose of light bulbs, the answer is absolutely not to throw them in the trash, as this can be hazardous for both human health and the environment.

What are the different types of light bulbs?

Luckily, there are safe and eco-friendly ways to deal with old light bulbs. The specific method of how to dispose of light bulbs actually depends on what sort of bulb you’re dealing with.

This is why it’s important to understand the different types of light bulbs.

Light bulbs can be used for a range of different purposes and in various situations – there’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to lighting. So it’s not surprising that there are many different types of light bulbs around with distinct characteristics.

Fluorescent tubes

These long, energy-efficient tubes are one of the longest lasting types of light bulbs, lasting from 24,000 to 36,000 hours. They are a favorite for workshops and brand outlets as a form of bright but inexpensive lighting.

Fluorescent tube light

However, fluorescent tubes contain a large amount of mercury, making them highly hazardous for the environment. Therefore, this is another type of light bulb you should never throw away with your regular trash because if they break and the toxin is released, it can be detrimental to both human health and the environment.

In 2018, a number of states including California, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Maine, Vermont, Washington, and Minnesota introduced laws banning fluorescent tubes containing mercury from being dumped in household trash.

CFLs

Compact Fluorescent Light, or CFL, bulbs consume less energy than traditional light bulbs and are therefore popular with eco-conscious consumers. There is a downside, though. What makes these bulbs so energy-efficient is the toxic mercury they contain.

compact fluorescent light

However, all the components of CFL bulbs can be recycled if you’re prepared to take the time and effort. The glass, mercury, and metal components can be reused and recycled if processed correctly.

Halogen bulbs

Halogen bulbs are so named because they contain halogen gas. Halogen gasses are highly reactive, making them harmful and even potentially lethal to living things, in certain quantities.

halogen light bulb

This is the major reason why you shouldn’t throw halogen bulbs away with your regular household trash. These kinds of bulbs are made of thicker glass than other types of light bulbs and so are less likely to break, but it’s still important to dispose of them carefully.

Incandescent light bulbs

People have used incandescent light bulbs for their overhead lighting and reading lamps since the beginning of the 20th century. These bulbs burn for 700 to 2,000 hours on average, and though they are now rapidly being replaced by new and more efficient alternatives, some people are still dedicated to these old-school light bulbs.

incandescent light bulb

The Centennial Bulb shows how much people still love incandescent bulbs. The world’s longest-running bulb has been illuminating for 120 years and it’s still going!

Incandescent light bulbs do not contain any harmful toxins so you can safely dispose of them with your regular trash. However, they can’t be recycled as their tiny wire filaments are too small to be removed during the glass recycling process.

LED bulbs

Light Emitting Diodes are now one of the most popular types of light bulbs used worldwide. These super-efficient bulbs offer long-lasting illumination for around 35,000 to 50,000 hours and use only a fraction of the energy of incandescent light bulbs.

LED light bulb

Unlike fluorescent tubes or CFLs, these bulbs are free of mercury. However, that doesn’t mean that you can safely put them in the trash as they do contain other hazardous substances such as arsenic and lead.

Many localities refuse to accept LED bulbs as part of their recycling programs. Unfortunately, this means that many people throw them in the trash and so these toxic chemicals end up in landfill and from there can seep into the water table.

How to dispose of light bulbs safely

If you want to know how to dispose of light bulbs safely, it’s important to first know what type of bulb you are dealing with. Some bulbs contain toxins, and need to be disposed of in a safe manner. Otherwise, you could end up damaging the environment, or your or your family’s health.

The exact process can vary depending on the type of light bulb you’re dealing with.

Disposing of incandescent light bulbs

Incandescent light bulbs are pretty easy to dispose of as they don’t contain any harmful components or toxic chemicals. Instead, they’re essentially made up of a thin wire filament and a sealed glass bulb.

From a health perspective, you can throw these away with your regular household waste, though they will end up in landfill. Because these kinds of bulbs can’t be recycled, the most eco-friendly thing to do is switch to a recyclable and energy-efficient type of light bulb.

If you do need to throw an old incandescent bulb away, be sure to:

  • If the glass is broken – wrap the pieces of the glass in newspaper, a paper bag or a cardboard box before throwing in the trash.
  • If the bulb has burnt out – put it in a cereal box or another form of packing to dispose of it safely.

How to safely dispose of LED bulbs

This first choice for energy-efficient light bulbs in almost every American home, LEDs work via an electric process known as “electroluminescence”. Once you find a recycling center that will accept LEDs, check with them for instructions on how to prepare them before you drop them off at the center.

Avoid throwing them in your regular trash as they contain arsenic and lead that can be detrimental to the environment if they end up in landfill.

Disposing of halogen bulbs safely

Similarly, halogen bulbs contain toxic chemicals so it’s important to make sure they don’t end up in landfill.

Most recycling centers don’t accept halogen bulbs, but it’s worth contacting any centers in your area to check. If not, most municipalities arrange collection of halogen bulbs periodically – contact your local authority to find out when your next collection is.

Once used to full capacity, to prep it for recycling or secure disposal, put the halogen bulb back in its container or wrap it up and pack it in a carton. Make sure to pack it securely so it doesn’t shatter and leak toxic chemicals.

Then keep them securely packaged in a safe place until they can be collected.

If you have a broken halogen bulb, you’ll need to carefully collect the components, wrap them up and give them to a toxic materials collection center.

How to dispose of fluorescent tubes safely

Fluorescent tubes can typically be recycled through recycling centers, either whole or broken. Because they contain toxic chemicals and are easy to break they need special handling.

Because of this, most recycling centers have special programs to collect fluorescent tubes, so be sure to check with them regarding collection procedures.

In the same way, dealing with a broken fluorescent tube can be hazardous, so follow these steps to safely manage this hazard and dispose of the waste:

  1. As soon as the bulb breaks, be sure to clear the room and let it air out for at least 10 minutes as there may be harmful gasses. At the same time, turn off the HVAC system to stop toxic mercury vapor circulating to other areas.
  1. Once aired out, use a piece of card, dustpan or similar to scoop up the shattered pieces of glass or pick up the broken pieces using a pair of sturdy gloves.
  1. Dispose of the glass pieces and powder residue in a plastic jar or a bag that won’t be torn by the sharp edges of the glass.
  1. Use duct tape to pick up any remaining powder or residue.
  1. Clean the area with a damp towel or disposable wipes to clean the area.
  1. Securely wrap up the broken pieces, duct tape, and towel or disposable wipes and store it safely until the recycling center collects it.

Disposing of CFLs

You can drop off CFLs at most recycling centers, major retailers, or take advantage of mail-in programs that deliver disposal kits to your home.

As with fluorescent tubes, you need to be careful when dealing with broken CFLs because of their toxic components, notably mercury.

Carefully pick up the broken pieces of glass and wipe off the area. Wrap up the broken glass carefully and avoid any direct contact.

Can light bulbs be recycled?

Yes, almost all light bulbs can be recycled in one way or another. Even shattered bulbs can be pressed down and recycled.

If they can’t be recycled, some light bulbs can be reused or repurposed for decorative purposes. The exact recycling process varies depending on the type of light bulb.

LEDs, CFLs, and fluorescent tubes can typically be recycled:

  • Many recycling centers accept fluorescent tubes, even broken and shattered ones. The EPA’s site also has a detailed list of companies that accept CFLs via mail.
  • Most recycling centers also accept LEDs – check the productcare recycling locator to find a recycling center near you and ask if they accept LEDs.
  • CFLs can be recycled and reused for parts if processed properly, but they typically can’t be disposed through your town’s recycling program. Again, check the productcare recycling locator to find a facility that accepts this kind of waste for recycling.
  • You can also visit Earth911 to be directed to local collection centers.

Halogen bulbs typically can’t be recycled, but most municipalities will arrange collections of toxic waste from time to time, including old halogen bulbs. Incandescent light bulbs are also not generally recyclable, but there are some ways you can repurpose them.

Alternatives to recycling

Incandescent light bulbs aren’t easy to recycle, but they can be used in different arts and crafts projects. There are plenty of cool ideas on Pinterest for repurposing these kinds of light bulbs.

You can transform them into ornamental terrariums, vases, and jewelry. Christmas lights are also great for making jewelry or even next-level Christmas gift wrap.

You can also repurpose LED lights as Christmas lights – either do this yourself or give to companies like HolidayLEDs.com that will give them a new life as holiday decorations.

How to dispose of light bulbs – final thoughts

Most people are in the dark when it comes to how to dispose of light bulbs. The process varies depending on the type of light bulb, but it’s important to dispose of them carefully because many bulbs contain hazardous and toxic components.

For the same reason, it’s important not to throw old light bulbs in the trash – not only could this pose a human health hazard, but it can be detrimental to the environment if they end up in landfill.

Luckily, most types of light bulbs can be recycled through your local recycling store or large retailer. It’s important to do some research to find a drop off location near you and prep the bulbs properly for recycling.

If you’ve enjoyed this guide to how to dispose of light bulbs, check out our posts on pros and cons of recycling and how to live a zero waste lifestyle.

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