Can You Recycle Old Light Bulbs?


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The average American household has about 50 light bulb sockets, most of which are in use. Used light bulb recycling and disposal become crucial, considering the sheer consumption numbers. Unfortunately, not all types of light bulbs can be handed off at a recycling center.

Old CFL, LED, and fluorescent bulbs can be recycled. Energy-efficient CFL and fluorescent bulbs are recycled because they contain trace amounts of toxic mercury. Halogen and incandescent bulbs are primarily disposed of, as recycling them is expensive and often not worth the effort.

The rest of this article discusses whether all old light bulbs can be recycled, how to properly recycle different light bulbs, how to safely dispose of halogen and incandescent light bulbs, and the benefits of recycling old light bulbs.

Why You Can’t Recycle Every Type of Light Bulb

Whether you can recycle an old light bulb depends on what kind of bulb it is. The construction materials used in manufacturing light bulbs directly impact both human health and the environment.

Most modern daylight bulbs available on the market are either CFL, LED, Halogen, or incandescent.

CFL and fluorescent tubes are power efficient because they contain small amounts of mercury and metallic salts. If disposed of haphazardly, these chemicals pose a threat to the surrounding environment. These bulbs are typically recycled in a specialized environment to prevent toxic leakage.

While not considered hazardous waste, halogen, LED, and incandescent light bulbs are not ideal candidates for recycling. The costs associated with setting up dedicated recycling plants are not feasible in comparison to the returns. These bulbs still contain other harmful chemicals and have to be discarded carefully.

How Are Light Bulbs Recycled?

Once you drop off your old light bulbs at the recycling center, they are shipped off to an authorized recycling plant.

Dedicated plant employees then sort through the piles of used glass bulbs and separate them according to make and size. These workers are well prepared for the task with full-body suits, respiratory masks, and other protective gear.

The bulbs are then pulled apart and crushed in machine tumblers. Materials like glass, mercury, metal, and phosphor are separated from the heap of bulbs. They are then stored, processed, and reused in future manufacturing processes.

The Harmful Effects of Improper Disposal

When throwing away old light bulbs, always take precautions. Every build of light bulbs, even LEDs, have harmful chemicals in them. Don’t be alarmed if you happen to break a CFL bulb or two while disposing of them. The mercury levels in them aren’t life-threatening, but make it a point not to minimize your exposure to it. Don’t inhale any vapor – Throw open a window, clean up the glass residue carefully, and thoroughly wash your hands.

The chemical components of light bulbs like arsenic, cadmium, and thallium poison the soil bed surrounding landfills and the underground water supply. This leads to disease outbreaks, a drop in soil fertility, and water contamination.

Even if recycling isn’t imposed by the government where you live, it’s just the right thing to do.

How to Recycle Old Light Bulbs

Before you consider sending off old light bulbs to the recycling plant, look at this video by Shake the Future. It gives you a few ideas about how to repurpose old light bulbs at home.

Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) and Fluorescent Tubes

CFLs and tubes are one of the most popular variants of low consumption light bulbs. They contain mercury and have to be recycled at a certified plant. Government legislation making CFL recycling mandatory is gaining traction in several states and provinces across North America.

Chucking them in the trash can have bad results.

Broken CFL bulbs can’t be recycled – So you must wrap old bulbs and tubes in airtight plastic bags and have them over at your nearest recycling center.

I recommend using EZ on the Earth’s fluorescent bulb recycling kit. Your recycling costs will add up to about $2 a bulb, making this product a value buy.

LED Bulbs

LEDs are arguably the best choice when it comes to a balance of energy efficiency and recyclability. They don’t contain mercury like CFLs, so you can always choose to throw them in the trash. It isn’t compulsory to recycle LEDs. But remember, they still contain copper, lead, arsenic, and nickel.

Also, recycling LEDs requires customized plants. Recycling programs typically do not accept LEDs for this reason. Certain types of larger LED lamps come with specific disposal instructions. Contact your nearest center and find out if they take LEDs.

Incandescent Bulbs

Standard incandescent bulbs are super affordable, but there are significant issues when it comes to recycling. They aren’t deemed ‘hazardous,’ but they can leave behind glass shards, metal fragments, and chemicals. Manufacturers are largely phasing out these variants, as they are inefficient and almost useless to recycle.

Ikea and Home Depot used to accept both CFLs and incandescent bulbs before, but you’ll find them a lot more reluctant now to take the latter. You can still find a few centers that accept them, but it’s better to throw away incandescent bulbs and replace them with environmentally friendly options.

Halogen Lamps

Halogen lamps are made of quartz glass, unlike other types. Quartz glass melts at a much higher temperature compared to regular glass. A single halogen lamp in a machine tumbler batch with different types of bulbs has the potential to wreck a full yield of recyclable glass.

The fine wires in the glass are difficult to separate and aren’t worth the trouble. Halogen lamps are mostly discarded, but some special, dedicated plants do accept them. Make sure you take proper precautionary steps during disposal.

Where Do I Recycle Old Light Bulbs?

I’d recommend you check your local community center, Home Depot, municipal office, IKEA, ABOP facilities, and environmental drives to find out the best option.

Depending on where you live, the number and type of used light bulbs you’re planning to recycle, you can find several organizations that offer home pickup services. You can also physically drop them off or opt for mail-in service.

Websites like Recycle a Bulb and Earth 911 offer location-based search engines for light bulb recycling.

The Benefits of Recycling Old Light Bulbs

Recycling light bulbs yields several benefits, both short term and long term.

  • Recycling old light bulbs is environmentally friendly. Landfill areas are limited, and it’s more crucial now than ever to recycle most of the waste we produce as a species. It prevents the contamination of food and water sources.
  • It prevents the spread of health disorders. The wide variety of build materials used in bulbs causes many health disorders, including mercury poisoning and kidney failure. Recycling these materials than disposing of them in the environment prevents adverse health effects.
  • The materials extracted from recycling can be reused to make more bulbs. Manufacturers save up on operational costs by opting for recycling programs.

Final Thoughts:

It’s possible to recycle most light bulbs available on the market. But not all bulbs can be recycled. Sometimes, the costs associated with recycling can make it impractical from a financial perspective. And other times, the materials extracted aren’t precious enough.

With other types like incandescent bulbs, it’s better to discard them with your household garbage, as they are not hazardous.

On the other hand, CFLs and other mercury-laden bulbs go straight to the recycling center.

Recycling other variants will take some extra effort from your side. But it’s prudent to pick the greener option every time, even if there isn’t a government bill in place.

The sheer long-term benefits of recycling outweigh most of the arguments against it.

Jake Alexander

Jake is a freelance writer from Pennsylvania who enjoys writing about science and sports. When he's not writing for Temperature Master, he can be found watching the NFL or playing basketball with his friends.

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