Only about 2% of individuals (in their homes) and one-third of businesses recycle compact fluorescent (CFL) light bulbs, which contain highly toxic mercury.
As a result, discarded CFLs are contributing to the release of roughly 4 tons of mercury into the environment each year, according to the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers.
The federal government has mandated the phase-out of inefficient incandescent bulbs by 2014. CFLs, which are being promoted by local and state governments, as well as utilities, are taking the place of incandescents, but recycling options for the bulbs currently are limited.
Each bulb contains about 5 milligrams of mercury, which makes its way into the air and stormwater runoff when the bulbs break on the way to the landfill or in the landfill itself.
But even taking into consideration these discarded bulbs, CFL’s still result in less mercury in the environment than incandescents. That is because incandescents require much more electricity, which is generally produced by coal-fired power plants. And the burning of coal is the number one source of mercury emissions into the environment.
But recycling options are necessary. Thus far, discarded CFLs are releasing almost 10% of the amount of mercury released by coal fired power plants.
Automotive batteries are the most recycled product in the world – near 100% – because recycling them is required by federal law. That law created incentives for industry to set up a recycling infrastructure.
LEDs are the next advance in lighting. They are quickly dropping in price and don’t contain mercury. While CFLs last 7 years and use just 25% the electricity of incandescents, LEDs last for 20 years and are 85% more efficient than incandescents.
The federally mandated phase-out of inefficient bulbs led companies to move much faster toward innovative, efficient lighting products.
For now, you can drop off your spent CFLs at any Home Depot, Lowes, many Ace Hardware stores or Ikea stores.
LampRecycle.org and Earth911.com provides lists of recyclers by ZIP code, or by phone at 800-CLEAN-UP (253-2687).