CFL Disposal: What to do with those burned out curly bulbs

“What should you do about CFL disposal? After all, I heard that those little curly bulbs are chock full of mercury!”As more people move from energy-hog incandescent bulbs to the more efficient CFL, and we approach the date when incandescent bulbs are no longer sold in the US, many are trying to figure out what to do with burned out florescent bulbs.

While the fears of creating a hazardous materials spill in your home each time you change a lightbulb are probably overblown, we do need to think about proper disposal of all our potentially hazardous waste, curly bulbs included.


Before we discuss proper CFL disposal, let's back up for a moment to look at the bigger picture...

People have all kinds of reasons to dislike (or maybe hate) CFLs: They create funny looking light, they hum, they cannot be dimmed, they contain mercury, they don't last as long as they claim to, they take a long time to come on, and the government is telling me that I have to use them....

Most of the reasons for that resistance, while reasonable at one time, have largely been dealt with by bulb manufacturers.

CFLs - An Improving Product

Early CFLs created truly horrible looking light but bulbs are now available in a wide range of color temperatures, appropriate for most any application.

In the beginning, CFLs had serious quality control issues. Cheap discount CFL bulbs often lasted only a short time. More recent bulbs, even the cheap ones, have vastly improved reliability.

Keep in mind that expected life numbers on all lightbulb packaging gives the expected point at which 50% of bulbs will have failed. Some bulbs will fail earlier than predicted, whether they are CFL, incandescent, or high-end induction lights. Even so, they are better now than they once were.

Dimmable CFLs are now widely available, though dimmable LED bulbs are probably a better option. Quick start CFLs and those intended for use in cold locations are also available.

The Heavy Hand of Government?

The reason the government is mandating the phaseout of inefficient incandescent lights is that we simply no longer have a choice.

In order to address the growing demands on our national power system, the need to phase out dirty coal power generation, and the need to move toward electricity as a motor fuel, we must place an emphasis on energy conservation.

The electric car is a real option for reducing our dependence on foreign oil sources, but it would take multiples of our current power generation capacity if we both move to electric cars and continue our power wasting ways. Conservation through better lighting technology is one way to free up power capacity for electric cars, along with renewable energy projects, smart grid technology, and consumer behavior modification.

CFL Disposal: Dealing with that Haz-Mat in your house

The bad news is that the rumors are true. CFLs do contain small amounts of mercury, and elemental mercury is a hazardous material. The good news is that CFLs contain far less mercury than they once did, but they still need to be disposed of properly.

Breaking a compact florescent and the resulting cleanup problem does require responsible action, but this is not the end of the world.

In fact, the EPA website cites reports stating that the amount of mercury exposure likely after breaking a CFL and cleaning up the mess is less than you would get from eating a tuna sandwich.

Download a PDF of the article from LD-A, the magazine of the Illuminating Engineering Society of North America, on mercury exposure from cleaning up a damaged CFL mess, Dangerous Mercury In CFLs? One Big Fish Story.

Also see the EPA web page regarding CFL Cleanup

CFL Disposal Strategies

Local Government CFL Disposal Programs
The solid waste authority in many areas of the United States and Canada have set up collection sites where low level hazards such as CFLs can be dropped off. Give a call to the local government agency in charge of solid waste disposal in your area to learn about options.

Retailer CFL Disposal Services
Many larger retailers who sell a a lot of CFL bulbs have collection programs in place. Check with your local big box home improvement retailers, chain department stores, and even small mom and pop hardware stores with an affiliation with a larger national brand. Most offer free CFL disposal.

Be certain to ask questions when you turn your bulbs over for inclusion in a proper CFL Disposal program, however. Big retailers are notorious for poorly trained employees.

I recently handed over a hand full of burned out CFLs at a big national chain store that I knew had a CFL disposal program. I stopped the well-meaning clerk just before she dumped the bulbs into the waste basket below her register desk. She had no clue.

CFLs – A Temporary Technology

The reality is that CFL Disposal is a temporary problem. These little bulbs are a great energy savings strategy, burning 75% less energy compared to similar incandescent lamps, but they are flawed. Newer LED lamps provide a 90% or more savings over CFLs and contain no mercury.

The cost of LED bulbs is still high compared to CFLs, but rapidly dropping.

Soon enough, curly bulbs will largely be a thing of the past, but in the meantime properly dispose of those CFLs!

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