To answer the title question is simply, it depends on the type of bulb. Most old bulbs can’t be recycled, but many bulbs should absolutely be recycled. That’s why we have written this guide to the best way to dispose of each type of light bulb. This way, you will know which bulbs can be thrown away safely and which need special treatment.
In general, incandescent and halogen bulbs can be thrown in the trash. If they are broken, you should wrap them with paper towels or newspaper to protect anyone that comes in contact with them. Compact fluorescent lights and fluorescent bulbs need to be properly recycled as they contain mercury.
It used to be, if you went to a store to get a light bulb, they were all the same. You simply decided how much light you wanted and the more light meant the higher the wattage. It was easy, but it was also wasteful.
If you have recently headed to the local discount store, supermarket, or hardware store, then you realize that there is now a much larger selection of bulbs than before. They use a lot less energy than the old bulbs, and they also don’t get as hot, which means they last much longer; some are made to last as much as for up to 50 thousand hours.
That’s a long time, to be sure, but it still means it will burn up and die eventually, which means it will have to eventually be replaced. However, before you decide to simply throw the old bulb in the garbage, you should understand the consequences. That means you have to know if the bulb you’re getting rid of has hazardous components and which ones can and should be recycled.
In this article, we will explain whether you can throw a bulb out with the regular trash, and which type of bulb can and/or should be recycled. The rules and regulations regarding recycling will be discussed and explained.
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The first thing you should know about light bulbs of the incandescent variety is that they’re largely a 19th Century technology. This is the type of bulb that was used for many years, even though everyone knew they were sucking power from the grid, and they were actually somewhat dangerous.
There is a reason we have used light shades for many years. Anyone who has accidentally come in contact with an incandescent bulb that was on for more than a few minutes knows how hot they could get. They are made with a thin filament of wire and no hazardous materials, so there is no immediate danger in throwing them into the trash.
The fact that incandescent bulbs are safe to throw away is good because they largely cannot be recycled, although that is only technically true. Most recycling centers do not have the equipment needed to separate the parts and recycle them because such equipment is expensive. That means they are effectively not recyclable.
That said, however, some communities have recycling centers that are willing to invest in the future and many of them advertise their ability to recycle incandescent bulbs, so it might be worth a Google search to find one. It used to be easier, as large retailers like Lowe’s and The Home Depot used to have recycle bins, but that has changed.
In Most Cases, Throwing Incandescent Bulbs Out is Okay
Unless authorities are willing to invest in the right equipment to recycle old light bulbs, you have no choice but to trash them. Throwing incandescent bulbs in the trash is in no way the ideal way to dispose of them, of course, since they can break apart and rip through the trash bag, making terrible messes more likely, among other things.
Thankfully, though, incandescent bulbs don’t typically contain chemicals that are toxic, however, so disposing of them in the trash isn’t necessarily harmful to either the health of your family or the environment.
However, because of the glass shards, you might consider wrapping old bulbs in old packing materials or plastic before putting them in a garbage bag, in order to minimize the potential damage to garbage bags, other trash, and fingers.
While you may be tempted to place incandescent bulbs into the recycle bin with other glass items, but given that most recycling centers can’t recycle them, it’s usually best to throw them in with the garbage.
When people think of halogen light bulbs, they usually consider vehicle headlights. However, these days, they are more like incandescent bulbs, and they are tough, so they are becoming more common in and around homes and offices.
In recent years, halogen bulbs are increasingly appearing in homes and offices. They are used to provide extra light in many living rooms, and they are used in desk lamps, to provide extra light and/or a quality of light that work better than old-fashioned fluorescent lights.
At home, halogen bulbs are increasingly found outside, being used as floodlights. This is because halogen lights are a more advanced version of an incandescent bulb, so the light is reliable, and the glass used in them is a lot stronger and capable of withstanding a lot more pressure.
Halogen bulbs also last longer than incandescent bulbs; they are rated at between 2000 and 4000 hours. When disposing of them, their durability also makes them less concerning than incandescent when it comes to trashing them, since the glass is less likely to break.
While incandescent bulbs have virtually no toxic chemicals in them, the same cannot be said of fluorescent bulbs, including the Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) bulbs that represented the initial transition away from incandescent bulbs to all sorts of bulbs that are far safer and more energy-efficient.
These narrow glass tubes were curled into their weird shape is so they could be used in standard light bulb fixtures. They are far more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs, but they lag well behind LED light bulbs.
These bulbs represented the first type of energy-saving light bulb, we were pointed to quite a few years ago. As noted, they have since been supplanted in the sustainability sweepstakes, but they served their purpose well.
Unfortunately, that means a lot of CFL bulbs are currently being disposed of these days, as people transition to LED and other newer choices. The problem is, all fluorescent bulbs have a small bit of mercury in them. While the amount of mercury in each bulb is minuscule, even less than the mercury contained in old-time thermometers, the possible volume of CFL bulbs ending up in a landfill is huge.
That makes the buildup of CFL bulbs into typical landfills a major danger; something could be very damaging to the environment and public health, especially if the mercury leaches into the water supply. That means the best way to dispose of your old CFL bulbs is by recycling them. If everyone simply throws them in the garbage, the mercury could leach into the water system.
While they rarely take in incandescent bulbs for recycling, Home Depot, Lowe’s, and other retailers will usually still accept CFL bulbs for recycling. In addition, there are a number of websites for national organizations that will happily take your CFLs for recycling, so it pays to search for those.
Long before we started switching to CFLs in our homes, fluorescent were very common in homes and offices nationwide. These were mostly used in businesses, especially offices because they saved a lot of energy and money. One reason for that is because they are relatively easy on energy usage. Not only that, but they last a long time, as much as 36 thousand hours.
That has always made them favorites in workshops and factories, as well as large offices and businesses. Any place where cheap and efficient lighting is wanted and needed to adapt fluorescent tubes to their needs.
Disposing of fluorescent tube light bulbs is a little trickier than with incandescent bulbs. You cannot simply throw them out with the trash. Like CFL bulbs, these bulbs also use a small amount of mercury, which means they should also be recycled carefully.
Removing these bulbs can be tricky, in part because of the mercury, but also because the glass is so fragile.
However, if you take some basic steps recommended by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), you can safely remove these bulbs. Of course, if you accidentally break a bulb, anyway, don’t panic. There is a section later on explaining the EPA rules, and they are easy to handle.
Just try to stay away from the area for 15 minutes or so and open a window, if possible and open a window to allow the air to circulate and shut off your air conditioning for a bit. At that point, you can use a small brush and a dustpan, sticky tape, or damp paper towels to clean up the broken glass.
Whatever you do, avoid using a broom or a vacuum to clean up the mess. To the EPA and many state laws, especially California, Maine, Minnesota, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, and Washington, that’s a no-no, since a minuscule amount of mercury
Thankfully, many major retailers, such as Lowe’s and Home Depot, now accept these tubes for recycling. There are also programs nationwide that collect fluorescent tube-style bulbs for recycling. You can visit Earth 911 and enter “fluorescent tubes” to find out the nearest drop-off point to you.
Just to reiterate, the disposal and clean-up of broken fluorescent light bulbs can be tricky and potentially dangerous in the short term and environmentally catastrophic in the long term. That is why the EPA has taken the opportunity to recommend ways to handle them safely.
These rules apply, no matter what. Remember; every time the glass on a fluorescent bulb is even cracked, a small amount of mercury vapor is released.
Whether you are attempting to dispose of an old bulb, or you are just trying to change a bulb, take all of these precautions every time. Remember, a key part of any fluorescent is mercury and, while there isn’t a lot, it is enough to create a health problem for anyone who’s exposed.
Anytime a fluorescent light bulb breaks, whether it’s a tube or a CFL, do the following:
- Send everyone away, including pets, if applicable, and do so as quickly as possible. Then, open a window or two, to let air flow through the room for at least 10-20 minutes.
- Shut down the AC to prevent the air from circulating mercury vapor throughout the house.
- Do not use a vacuum to clean the area, for roughly the same reason, since that could circulate mercury vapor through the room.
- Use poster paper or cardboard, or other stiff paper to shovel up the fine powder and pieces of glass from the floor and then make sure you store it in a glass jar or a clear plastic bag.
- In the alternative, use the sticky side of a piece of tape to pick up the pieces of glass and fine powder from the floor and place those in a plastic bag or glass jar, as well.
- Use a wet or damp towel, or even some wet wipes to clean whatever is left over and dispose of it directly in the outside trash can.
- Call the local waste management company to find out where they collect this type of waste.
If your community has no special regulations for disposal of fluorescent bulbs, the EPA recommends placing the broken bulb and its remnants into a clear plastic bag and leave it outside the regular trash can, so collectors can see what it is when they pick up your trash.
Light-emitting diode (LED) light bulbs have become very popular in recent years. In fact, they are quickly becoming the go-to bulbs for everyone who is looking to become as energy-efficient as possible.
And they are energy-efficient. In fact, LED bulbs use more than 90 percent less energy than an old-fashioned incandescent light bulb. That’s because the electric current goes through a small microchip, which then lights up hundreds of tiny LED lights.
The way LED lights work is called electroluminescence, which mimics how a laser manages to, which is why LED bulbs always stay cool to the touch, no matter how many hours they operate. That is why they can perform at peak illumination for as long as 50,000 hours.
Perhaps the best news is, LED lights do not contain any hazardous chemicals, which means they are safe to throw away with the eggshells and chicken bones in the trash. That said, LED light bulbs contain some components that are recyclable, so you may want to do that, instead of filling up your local landfill with even more trash.
There are no national recycling programs, but many local recycling centers do accept them for recycling, so it’s best to check out yours. Many large retailers, like Home Depot, will accept LED bulbs, including LED Christmas lights for recycling.
There are also a number of national recycling websites that will happily accept your LED bulbs for recycling.
Recycling is becoming more popular with LED bulbs, even though they last so long, they may rarely need replacement. Because LEDs do not contain the fine wires that prevent the recycling of incandescent and halogen varieties, you’re likely to see more LED recycling options in the future.
Until then, if you can’t find a convenient drop-off spot, rest assured that LEDs will not release harmful toxins into the environment if tossing in your regular trash.
Suppose you want to replace your energy-slurping light bulbs with some that use far less electricity. What can you do with the old bulbs if your recycling prospects are either limited or non-existent and you’d rather not add to the landfill to any significant degree?
Well, luckily for you, there are many fun, creative projects that you can use to indulge your inner artist and create new uses for those bulbs. If you are a handy do-it-yourselfer, you might be surprised by the number of things you can make from an ordinary light bulb.
Some of the most popular household items people have made from used light bulbs of all types have included the following:
- Hand-designed and hand-painted holiday ornaments.
- Funky sculptures made from various parts.
- Make figurines to look like animals or insects like spiders.
- Make a stained glass hanging wall decorations.
- Make an oil lamp.
- Make a unique vase for flowers.
- Make a snow globe.
You can find many other potential projects by searching the web for “DIY projects using light bulbs” or something similar.
A lot of people are not very artsy, so the only options left may be throwing away your light bulbs or making sure they’re recycled. Therefore, this would be an excellent time to look into the local rules regarding throwing out light bulbs, especially those that contain toxic chemicals.
You’ll want to ask questions of local authorities to find out which bulbs can be thrown away in the trash and which must be included with the recycling. Most communities have published recycling rules somewhere like the local phone book, usually the Yellow Pages.
By using those pages, you can find out where you can place each type of bulb that can be recycled and which type of bulb can not simply be thrown out with the rest of your trash.
Many of these recycling pages will also provide helpful recommendations about where you can drop off bulbs you want to recycle and also show you how to pack your trashed bulbs to prevent injury or environmental damage.
The fact of the matter is, rules regarding recycling light bulbs vary greatly from one jurisdiction to another, so don’t think you know the local rules where you are now because you know the rules in another location.
Not only do regulations vary from state to state, but they can also differ greatly between towns and cities in the same state.
One of the most prominent examples of the variety of rules is California’s recent light bulb regulation, which currently bans the use of both halogen and incandescent light bulbs altogether. Since everyone must change their older bulbs, disposal rules will have to become an issue, whereas the rules in other states aren’t so strict.
As the strict rules in California make clear, the days where you can just buy any light bulb you want are over, which means you will soon have to dispose of all old incandescent bulbs.
If you’re concerned about the environment, especially with regard to the threat of climate change, you and millions of other people all over the world will increasingly want to consider the effects of their actions on the state of the planet. That means, it is quite likely that concern over stuffing landfills with more and more “trash” will grow.
All of that adds up to a significant level of change and a higher level of concern for our individual actions and their impact on the environment. That means a much greater call to recycle the things we do and less of an emphasis on things we can simply “throw away.”
While the immediate effect of throwing away incandescent light bulbs isn’t a major increase in concern because the danger isn’t apparent and/or immediate. However, as we fill landfills and then, eventually, we run out of landfill space, the concerns are likely to be wider and more thoughtful, which will mean ever-stricter regulations.
Let’s just be real, here. Putting the right trash where it belongs is usually very easy. If it’s food waste, it all goes to one place, while metal and glass accessories probably shouldn’t be stored with food waste.
However, when it comes to light bulbs, our quest for sustainability and energy savings is complicating their disposal. Save your skin and make sure you know what you’re doing before you try to dispose of your modern, energy-efficient bulbs, and make sure you don’t do more harm than good.