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A Guide on How to Dispose of Fluorescent Bulbs

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Author: ACTenviro
Date: June 4, 2024

Fluorescent bulbs are among one of these modern, effective, and reliable sources of light. They are more energy-efficient and cost-effective than incandescent bulbs. But similar to campfires that can burn entire forests if not extinguished properly, these bulbs can be harmful to your health and the environment if not disposed of properly.

This article shows you how to dispose of fluorescent bulbs properly. It has to be done the right way because they contain mercury, a hazardous material. We will also discuss what to do if a bulb breaks, why recycling these bulbs is the better option, and the benefits of proper disposal. 

How To Dispose of Fluorescent Bulbs Properly

For one thing, you should make sure you don’t break it. Some recycling or disposal facilities do not accept broken bulbs. Before heading out to the nearest disposal or recycling facility with your spent fluorescent bulbs, you need to prepare them properly.

  • Taking out a bulb from a socket can be an electrical hazard. Switch off the fuse or breaker providing power to that area to avoid electrical fires or electrocution. It is not enough to turn off the light switch.
  • Remove the spent bulb carefully out of the socket or fixture. If it’s located on the roof or in a high location, use a ladder to reach the bulb. It would even be safer if you have someone else to assist you; you can give the bulb to him or her rather than juggle with it as you maneuver around on the ladder.
  • The bulb's glass is quite fragile. Hold the lamp carefully as you unscrew it. Once it’s out of the fixture, hold it by the base.  Even a single crack on a bulb is enough to release the toxic mercury in the surroundings. 
  • Put the used bulb back into its original packaging. Because you may have thrown away the original box, you need to find a box that is big enough to fit the spent fluorescent bulb.
  • Protect the burnt-out bulb from shock and breakage by padding it. Wrap some sheets of old newspaper or bubble wrap around it. Even if the glass does break, the shards will still be safely contained in the wrapping material.
  • A good idea is to use a big box to store your spent bulbs. In that way, you don’t have to struggle to find small boxes to house the bulbs. Plus, you can easily carry everything to the collection area, disposal area, or recycling center in one go. 

    Wrap each bulb as described above and put it inside the box. For cushioning, add in foam peanuts, crumpled newspaper, or pieces of sponge in the box. Put extra cushioning on the gaps between bulbs to prevent them from banging against each other.
  • Place the box away from the reach of kids and pets. When it’s full, close it up, seal the opening, and label it so that the collectors and recyclers would know what is inside. You can take the box to your local recycler or disposal facility or bring it to an establishment that does in-store recycling. You can also call professional hazardous waste management service providers such as ACTenviro as they can dispose of hazardous household waste properly.

You might want to ask yourself, "Where can I find facilities that do fluorescent light bulb disposal near me?" Your best bet would be the Earth 911 search site. Simply fill in the search fields to see if there is any disposal or recycling facility near you.

What to Do If a Fluorescent Bulb Breaks at Home

Being made of glass, a fluorescent bulb can easily break. It may fall off its socket or feature for one reason or another. You might hit it with your skipping rope as you work out. Here are some tips on how to dispose of light bulbs that are cracked or broken.

  • Cordon off the area and keep pets and little children away. Open all windows and doors for ventilation.
  • If you have a face mask, wear it. This helps you avoid inhaling the vaporized mercury.
  • Slip on some flip-flops or shoes. These help protect your bare feet from broken pieces of glass. Some broken pieces are so small they can be barely seen. Yet, they are still super sharp and can embed themselves in your skin.
  • Do not vacuum the broken pieces as the glass can damage your vacuum cleaner. Also, don’t pick up the pieces with your bare hands. Use a broom or brush and sweep the glass on a dustpan.
  • Shards of broken glass may have scattered away from the point of impact. Thus, you may have to sweep a large area about 10 x 10 square feet around the point of impact.
  • Wipe the floor with a wet rag to pick up tiny slivers of glass. Again, wipe about 10 x 10 square feet of floor.
  • Let the mercury vapor dissipate. Leave the area for an hour.
  • Place the broken shards of glass along with the wet rag in a sealed plastic bag. However, in a 2008 study conducted Maine Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), researchers found out that mercury vapor continues to leak out of sealed bags. The DEP and the EPA highly recommend putting the pieces in a sealed glass or plastic jar with a screw cap.
  • Don’t throw the plastic bag or jar in your trash can as broken fluorescent bulbs are considered hazardous waste. Refer to your local government regarding the fluorescent light bulb disposal regulations.

Can Fluorescent Bulbs Be Recycled?

What to do with old light bulbs? The good thing is that fluorescent bulbs can be recycled. Here are some key points about recycling fluorescent bulbs:

  • Recycling Process: The recycling process for fluorescent bulbs typically follows a certain process:
    • Collection: Spent or broken bulbs are collected at designated recycling centers, retail stores, or special recycling events.
    • Separation: The bulbs are crushed, and the different materials (glass, metal, phosphor powder, and mercury) are separated.
    • Processing: Mercury is extracted and purified for reuse. Glass and metals are recycled into new products. Phosphor powder can be treated and reused.
  • Where to Recycle: Many hardware stores, home improvement stores, and local recycling centers accept fluorescent bulbs for recycling. Some municipalities also offer household hazardous waste collection programs that include fluorescent bulbs. Finally, specialists such as ACTenviro provide recycling services
  • Regulations: In some regions, there are regulations mandating the recycling of fluorescent bulbs. Check with your local government units to know about guidelines for proper disposal.

Why Do Fluorescent Lights Need Special Disposal?

an image of broken shards of bulbs

It is tempting to simply throw your used bulbs in the trash together with all the other garbage. Bad idea.

Reducing Health and Environmental Impact

As efficient as these things are, fluorescent light bulb disposal needs to be done properly. That’s because they contain about 5 milligrams of mercury. Even in small amounts, mercury is extremely toxic. 

Chronic or acute mercury poisoning may result in organ damage to the kidneys, lungs, and the brain.  It can also cause serious diseases such as Minamata disease, Hunter-Russel syndrome, acrodynia, and hypertension. It also inhibits selenium-dependent enzymes irreversibly, causing metabolic irregularities. 

When a fluorescent lamp breaks, the vaporized mercury is released and lingers in the area for some time. A person near the broken lamp may inhale the toxic mercury gas. If the mercury seeps through an impermeable surface such as a carpet, it can be very difficult to remove it.

Improper fluorescent bulb disposal in a landfill that is not designed to hold hazardous materials causes the mercury to leach. The mercury can find its way through the soil, past the bedrock, and to the groundwater below.  And in many places, groundwater is the main source of the locality’s potable water supply.

Conserving Landfill Space

Most of the waste generated by households, offices, and industrial facilities end up in landfills. Unfortunately, we have a finite number of available landfill spaces. We cannot just clear up forests and reserves for landfill space due to regulations in place for environmental protection and preservation.

Can fluorescent light bulbs be safely disposed of in landfills? Well, the thing is that thousands upon thousands of fluorescent bulbs are discarded every year. Without some sort of control over fluorescent bulbs disposal, these will quickly take up landfill space. 

That is why fluorescent bulb recycling is preferred or even required in some states. By repurposing the materials that make up these bulbs, landfill space can be used more efficiently for other types of waste.

Reduction of Raw Materials

Raw materials are used every time a brand-new product is made. The massive consumption of raw materials becomes a burden to the environment. 

Almost all parts of a fluorescent bulb can be reused and reprocessed. For example, mercury can be filtered out and repurposed in thermostats, thermometers, and other devices that use mercury. Electrodes and electronics can be unsoldered and used in other devices. The aluminum base can be recycled into scrap metal. The glass can be crushed and used as aggregates in asphalt, concrete, or tile material.

By properly disposing of these bulbs and using recycled materials, there is a considerable reduction in the harvesting and use of raw materials.

Regulations Regarding Disposing Fluorescent Bulbs

The federal US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers fluorescent light bulbs as hazardous materials. Thus, regulations on how to dispose of fluorescent bulbs properly are implemented. The EPA has published a list of articles on how to properly dispose of fluorescent bulbs. The published page also includes a list of local retailers who can do in-store recycling, organizations that offer mail-back services, and some notes regarding local collection of hazardous waste.

Each state, municipality, or local government has its own set of regulations regarding fluorescent bulb recycling and disposal. Some have stringent regulations, others have relaxed rules, and others have none at all. Some regulations may be based on EPA guidelines while others are customized according to each place’s unique conditions, capabilities, and limitations.

In local government units where no regulations are in place, it is assumed that used or broken bulbs can be included in regular household trash. While this isn’t exactly ideal, there are still ways to mitigate mercury contamination.

Finally, some municipalities require fluorescent bulb recycling rather than outright disposal. This is preferred as virtually all parts of fluorescent bulbs are recyclable. 

Always check with your municipality about the regulations so you can dispose or recycle fluorescent bulbs the right way.

Conclusion

Fluorescent bulbs are innovative pieces of lighting technology. They are energy-efficient and reliable while they light up the world. However, they are also made of dangerous materials that can make people sick or can harm the environment.Regulations are put in place to limit or even prevent these problems. Thus, if you dispose of fluorescent bulbs properly, you are being a responsible citizen.

ACTenviro can help you recycle or dispose of your burnt-out fluorescent bulbs. Get in touch with them for more details.

ALL BRANCH LOCATIONS

*ACTenviro has National service and consulting capabilities across the US

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