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Fluorescent Tubes Recycling

Category:
Author: Marketing
Date: February 3, 2024

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:

  • To avoid electrocution and electrical fires when taking out a burnt-out tube, turn off the breaker providing power to that section of your home, office, or business establishment.
  • Carefully remove the spent tube out of the fixture. It is highly recommended that you use a ladder to reach the fixture. It is also highly recommended to have another person assist you for even more safety.
  • The glass tube of a fluorescent lamp is quite fragile. Hold the lamp gently as you remove it so it won’t break. A broken fluorescent lamp can release toxic mercury vapor into the air. Furthermore, the cracked or broken glass can cause injuries.
  • Put the burnt fluorescent tube into its original packaging. If the original packaging is unavailable, which is actually likely, find a box that is big or long enough to fit the tube.
  • To prevent breakage, wrap the burnt-out tube with some sheets of newspaper or bubble wrap. The wrapping material cushions the tube. Even if the glass breaks, the pieces will be contained in the wrap.
  • Save time, money, and effort by using a big box to store your spent tubes. By doing so, you can ship all those lamps to the disposal or recycling facility in one go. Put each spent lamp in and fill the empty spaces with crumpled newspaper, pieces of old sponge, bubble wrap, or foam peanuts. Do this each time you put a tube. The filling helps prevent the lamps from banging or rubbing against each other.
  • Put the box in a safe place away from kids and pets. Once it is filled up or when your local municipality schedules hazardous waste collection in your area, you can take it out.

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:

  • From the previous sections of the article, we know that fluorescent lamps have toxic vapor. Recycling used tubes prevent mercury from being released into the environment thanks to filters and scrubbers that isolate the element during the recycling process.
  • Almost all parts of the tube can be reused. The aluminum base with bi-pin plugs can be recycled to scrap metal. Electrodes and contact pins can be taken out and used in new lamps or other electronics. After the phosphor is scrubbed out, the glass can be ground to small pieces and used as aggregate to concrete and pavement.
  • By recycling fluorescent tubes, you help save landfill space. If there’s no recycling done, millions of fluorescent tubes may have ended up in landfills, taking up space and possibly contaminating the land around it.
  • Your local government may prohibit outright disposal of fluorescent lamps. In fact, some states and local jurisdictions have stricter regulations than the federal EPA.

Fluorescent Tubes Recycling Facilities

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

  • Check if your local municipality’s recycling center accepts burnt-out fluorescent lamps. Most accept them as long as they’re properly prepared. Note though that many recycling facilities do not accept smashed or broken lamps.
  • There are many private businesses that offer waste management and recycling services. ACT, for example, collects hazardous waste including spent fluorescent lights from homes, offices, business establishments, and industrial facilities. They have the right equipment as well as the skilled personnel to do that.
  • A local waste collection agency may get both your general trash and hazardous waste. As mentioned above, these agencies often have schedules in collecting waste in your place. Thus, you should know and adhere to these schedules.
  • Many hardware supply stores, home depot retailers, and other similar establishments offer in-store recycling. You can give them your used bulbs and they will recycle it for you. The Earth 911 search page allows you to search for such stores in your area.

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.

What kind of equipment is used to crush fluorescent tubes?

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.

What happens to the extracted mercury?

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?

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.

How do I do fluorescent light disposal or recycling if my municipality doesn’t have clear regulations?

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.

Are there safer alternatives to fluorescent tubes?

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 lots of ways to do this, and recycling is within easy reach in just about any place in the country.

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