Compact Fluorescents Aren't Being Recycled, Releasing Mercury

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. and provides lists of recyclers by ZIP code, or by phone at 800-CLEAN-UP (253-2687).

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Comments on “Compact Fluorescents Aren't Being Recycled, Releasing Mercury”

  1. Don

    Every CFL should be properly recycled, but hey, this is the real world. Still the amount of mercury released into the environment is less than what would have been released by coal fired electric generators if an incandescent were used in place of a CFL. ALSO I believe your figure of 5 milligrams of Mercury IS OUTDATED INFORMATION. That was the case about 5 YEARS AGO, manufacturers have reduced that to less than 2.5, and in some cases approaching 1 milligram of Mercury per CFL.

  2. Doug

    Furthermore, whatever amount of mercury starts out in the CFL, most of it becomes chemically bound to the coating on the inside of the glass as the bulb is used. By the time the bulb burns out, only about 11% of the mercury remains free to disperse into the environment if the bulb is broken (EPA website information).

  3. Doug

    And by way of comparison, the annual US release of mercury, mostly due to the burning of coal, is over 100 metric tons (EPA website again). So overall CFL use saves literally tons of mercury from being released – even when they are not recycled. Starting from the incorrect estimate of 4 tons mercury per year, reduce by 50% (Don’s point) and then by another 90% (my point); results in an annual release of just 0.2 tons per year – to be compared with the above-mentioned release due to the use of coal.

  4. Brad Buscher

    CFLs are better solution, both economically and environmentally. They do save energy, but they also contain small amounts of mercury. Recycling mercury-containing products, including CFLs, is becoming an important issue. As this article states, it is important for consumers to realize that CFLs and fluorescent bulbs require special handling and disposal. Like all mercury-containing fluorescent lights, CFLs should be properly stored, transported and recycled to prevent these fragile bulbs from breaking and emitting hazardous mercury vapor. They cannot be thrown away in the trash, but should be taken to a recycling center or disposed of by using a proven recycling box. However, taking them to a recycling center may not always be the most efficient solution. Consumers can use a recycling box to ship bulbs instead. If consumers choose this option, it is important to select a packaging configuration that effectively contains mercury vapor. A recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota tested the effectiveness of various packages in containing mercury vapor emitted from broken fluorescent lamps. The study found that many packages do not sufficiently contain mercury vapor, such as single-layer cardboard boxes (representing the original manufacturer’s box or container) as well as single layer boxes with a sealed plastic bag. Just one configuration—consisting of a zip-closure plastic-foil laminate bag layered between two cardboard boxes—minimized exposure levels below acceptable occupational limits, as defined by state and federal regulations and guidelines. Find out more about this proven packaging method at:


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