Fluorescent Tubes Recycling

It is difficult to imagine a world without fluorescent tubes. For years, fluorescent lamps have illuminated our homes, offices, business establishments, and industrial facilities.

Eventually, these will soon burn out and need to be recycled or disposed of. But this has to be done the right way, considering that these are classified as hazardous waste.

How Does a Fluorescent Tube Work

To understand why fluorescent tubes need to be recycled or disposed properly, you need to know what they are and how they work. 

A fluorescent tube, interchangeably used with the term fluorescent lamp, is a type of low-pressure mercury-vapor gas discharge lamp. It produces illumination through the principle of fluorescence, or the discharge of light by a material that has absorbed electromagnetic radiation. 

When you turn on the light, an electric current increases the energy level of the molecules of mercury vapor. In this excited state, the vapor produces short wave ultraviolet (UV) light. When the UV light hits the phosphor coating inside the glass tube, the phosphor converts the ultraviolet rays to visible light. This is the bright glow of light that the fluorescent tube emits, the light that brightens up a room.

Fluorescent lamps have long been better lighting substitutes for incandescent bulbs. The former uses less electrical energy than the latter, thus saving the user of energy costs. Fluorescent lighting systems also produce 50 to 100 lumens (a measure of how bright a light source is) per watt, which is way brighter than incandescent bulbs with equivalent luminescence output.

Because it uses UV rays, a fluorescent tube operates cooler than an incandescent lamp. The former uses electricity to heat up a filament, which glows incredibly hot. Finally, a fluorescent tube lasts longer than an incandescent lamp of similar wattage. 

Fluorescent tubes are a bit costlier than incandescent bulbs since they require a ballast to regulate the electric current through the tube. However, the energy savings outweighs this minimal drawback.

Technological advancements have made fluorescent tubes more compact. The resulting products, called compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), are smaller, more energy efficient, and more eco-friendly than the tubes.  These CFLs can fit existing sockets for incandescent bulbs. Because they are self contained, CFLs don’t need expensive ballasts and extra features for them to activate.

Fluorescent Tube Recycling Preparation

But there is a drawback to using fluorescent tubes. It all goes back to its primary ingredient – mercury. Mercury even at small amounts is toxic. It can cause poisoning when ingested and can contaminate groundwater if it finds its way down the bedrock. 

Mercury can damage vital organs such as the brain, lungs, and kidney. It can also cause several diseases including acrodynia, Minamata disease, and Hunter-Russell syndrome. The problem is that there is limited research regarding effective mercury poisoning although medication for acute mercurial poisoning is available.

Due mainly to the mercury content as well as other materials, the US Federal Environmental Protection Agency categorizes fluorescent lamps of all kinds, including tubes, as hazardous waste. The EPA highly recommends separating burnt-out fluorescent lamps from general wastes for disposal. Many jurisdictions, however, recommend recycling fluorescent bulbs to save landfill space and to protect the environment.

Before you go running to the recycling facility with your spent tubes, you need to prepare them first. Here are some steps you need to do to prepare them for fluorescent light disposal or recycling:

Why Recycle Fluorescent Tubes

Recycling rather than outright fluorescent light disposal is preferable in many cases. In some areas, you are actually required to recycle them.  

So why is recycling fluorescent tubes and CFLs important? Here are some good reasons:

Fluorescent Tubes Recycling Facilities

So where do you actually have used fluorescent tubes recycled? Here are some options:

Note though that you need to check directly with the establishment of your choice. That’s because not all the stores in a regional or nationwide chain may offer in-store recycling even though the chain itself advertises that it does such. 

In addition, some stores recycle only specific types of fluorescent lamps. For example, they may accept CFLs but would do otherwise on fluorescent tubes. 

Several manufacturers of lighting fixtures have pre-labeled recycling kits available for you to use. Fill up the kit with used bulbs, close and seal it, then mail it back to the shipper manufacturer or their accredited recycling facility. This is called a mail-back service and is quite convenient.  The price of each kit usually includes shipping charges. 

It’s important to note that the federal EPA does not endorse or certify any mail-back service. This is purely the initiative of the manufacturer.

Frequent Fluorescent Tubes Recycling Questions

The topic of recycling fluorescent tubes raises several frequently asked questions. We will attempt to answer some of them.

Crushing fluorescent tubes is not simply about pounding them with a large hammer. Rather they are crushed in a special device called fluorescent lamp crusher using a method called drum-top crushing. A crusher is designed to reduce mercury vapor emissions, labor, storage, and shipping costs of recycling fluorescent tubes while increasing safety. It is often used in commercial and industrial facilities.

 

A drum-top crusher is made up of a 55-gallon vacuum-sealed steel connected to a motorized crushing mechanism. As the machine pounds the fluorescent tubes, the glass fragments pass through an entry tube into the drum. The mercury in the lamp is extracted via multiple filters. The vacuum helps contain the mercury and keeps the glass fragments from escaping.
 
A drum-top crusher can process over 1,000 spent lamps. Once the drum is full, it is detached from the crushing mechanism then transported to a recycling or disposal facility.

The mercury that is extracted from crushed lamps can also be recycled. It can be used in new fluorescent tubes and CFLs. It can also be repurposed for uses in mercury-using equipment such as thermostats, thermometers, transit telescopes, and optical spectroscopy equipment.

The mercury that is extracted from crushed lamps can also be recycled. It can be used in new fluorescent tubes and CFLs. It can also be repurposed for uses in mercury-using equipment such as thermostats, thermometers, transit telescopes, and optical spectroscopy equipment.

 

Where can I find recycling facilities in my area

If you’re looking for fluorescent recycling facilities near you, the best place to check is Earth 911. Click the link and fill in the search fields to find collection schedules, drop-off locations, and curbside collections near you. 

 

Note that these entities, companies, organizations may do the following:

 

  • They may collect a small fee for the service although most do this without you spending a penny.
  • Collection of hazardous waste may be irregular or infrequent. Some of these agencies may collect hazardous materials only once a month, once a year, or twice a year. If that’s the case, keep the used bulbs with you until the collectors arrive. Use the tips above in stowing used fluorescent lamps safely.
  • These agencies may also collect other hazardous waste including household chemicals, paint thinner, spent batteries, and more.
  • In general, the agencies listed in the Earth 911 search page accept hazardous materials from residents and small businesses only. For bigger companies and larger facilities, you may need a specialist like ACT to take care of your fluorescent tubes and other hazardous waste.

Some states and jurisdictions have very relaxed to no regulations at all with regards to the disposal and recycling of fluorescent lamps. But that doesn’t mean that you can just chuck your spent tube in the trash or landfill. 

 

Follow the preparation steps as described above. Seal the box then write a label describing the contents - in this case, “used fluorescent tubes”. Collectors will know how to handle the waste correctly.

If handled correctly, fluorescent tubes and CFLs are already safe. However, the advancement of illumination technology has produced better, more efficient, and safer light sources. The primary contenders are light emitting diode (LED) lamps. 

 

LED lamps are compatible with either incandescent sockets or fluorescent fixtures. They’re more expensive than either, but you enjoy a whole lot of savings. That’s because a LED lamp uses 30% less energy than a fluorescent lamp of the same wattage. A LED lamp can last an average of 50,000 hours.

 

Most importantly, a LED lamp does not contain toxic mercury vapor. Thus, they can be discarded together with general municipal waste.

Conclusion

Recycling burnt-out fluorescent tubes is a responsible thing to do. You save landfill space, supply new materials, lessen the procurement of raw materials, protect public health, and preserve the environment. The good news is that there are