To answer the title question, it depends on the type of bulb. Most old bulbs can’t be recycled, but many bulbs should be recycled. That’s why we have written this guide to the best way to dispose of each 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 must be recycled appropriately as they contain mercury.
The Old Bulbs are Gone, Which Means Change for Everyone
It used to be if you went to a store to get a light bulb, they were all the same. You decided how much light you wanted; 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, you realize there is a much more extensive selection of bulbs than before. They use less energy than the old bulbs and don’t get as hot, which means they last much longer; some are made to stay 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 be replaced eventually. However, before you throw the old bulb in the garbage, you should understand the consequences. That means you must know if the bulb you’re getting rid of has hazardous components and which ones can and should be recycled.
This article will explain whether you can throw a bulb out with regular trash and which type of bulb can and should be recycled. The rules and regulations regarding recycling will be discussed and explained.
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How to Dispose of Incandescent Bulbs
The first thing you should know about light bulbs of the incandescent variety is that they’re primarily a 19th Century technology. This bulb was used for many years, even though everyone knew they were sucking power from the grid and were 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 it can 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 cannot be recycled, although that is only technically true. Most recycling centers do not have the equipment to separate and recycle the parts because such equipment is expensive. That means they are effectively not recyclable.
However, some communities have recycling centers willing to invest in the future. Many advertise their ability to recycle incandescent bulbs, so it might be worth a Google search to find one. It used to be more accessible, as large retailers like Lowe’s and Home Depot used recycle bins, but that has changed.
What Are the Dangers of Disposing of Light Bulbs?
The main danger of disposing of lightbulbs is mercury-containing bulbs like traditional fluorescent and CFL bulbs. As these light bulbs are thrown into landfills, the mercury leaches into the earth and poisons the land and groundwater.
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 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 toxic chemicals, so disposing of them in the trash isn’t necessarily harmful to your family’s health 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 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, given that most recycling centers can’t recycle them, it’s usually best to throw them in with the garbage.
How to Dispose of Halogen Light Bulbs
When people think of halogen light bulbs, they usually consider vehicle headlights. However, these days, they are more like incandescent bulbs and challenging, becoming more common in and around homes and offices.
In recent years, halogen bulbs are increasingly appearing in homes and offices. They provide extra light in many living rooms, and desk lamps offer additional light and a quality light that works 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, 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.
How to Dispose of Compact Fluorescent Light (CFL) Bulbs
While incandescent bulbs have virtually no toxic chemicals, 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, so they could be used in standard light bulb fixtures. They are far more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs but lag well behind LED light bulbs.
These bulbs represented the first 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 many CFL bulbs are currently being disposed of as people transition to LED and other newer choices. The problem is that all fluorescent bulbs have a tiny bit of mercury. 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 enormous.
That makes the buildup of CFL bulbs into typical landfills a significant 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 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, several websites for national organizations will happily take your CFLs for recycling, so it pays to search for those.
What Happens if You Inhale Mercury From a Light Bulb?
Inhaling mercury from one broken lightbulb isn’t likely to cause any damage. Prolonged mercury exposure can damage your central nervous system, liver, and kidneys.
What Can I Do About Tube-Type Fluorescent Bulbs?
Long before we started switching to CFLs in our homes, fluorescent were very common in homes and offices nationwide. These were primarily used in businesses, especially offices, because they saved a lot of energy and money. One reason for that is that 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 should also be recycled carefully.
Removing these bulbs can be tricky, partly 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.
Stay away from the area for 15 minutes and open a window, if possible, 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 the nearest drop-off point.
Important: Clean-Up Broken Fluorescent Bulbs of All Types
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, a small amount of mercury vapor is released every time the glass on a fluorescent bulb is cracked.
Whether attempting to dispose of an old bulb or just trying to change a bulb, take all of these precautions every time. Remember, a vital part of any fluorescent is mercury, and while there isn’t a lot, it is enough to create a health problem for anyone 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.
- For roughly the same reason, do not use a vacuum to clean the area since that could circulate mercury vapor through the room.
- Use poster paper, cardboard, or other stiff paper to shovel up the fine powder and pieces of glass from the floor and then 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.
- Use a wet towel or 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 this waste is collected.
Suppose your community partially regulates the disposal of fluorescent bulbs. In that case, the EPA recommends placing the broken bulb and its remnants into a clear plastic bag and leaving it outside the regular trash can, so collectors can see what it is when they pick up your trash.
How to Dispose of LED Light Bulbs
Light-emitting diode (LED) light bulbs have become very popular recently. They are quickly becoming the go-to bulbs for everyone looking to become as energy-efficient as possible.
And they are energy-efficient. 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 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 that LED lights do not contain any hazardous chemicals, which means they are safe to throw away with eggshells and chicken bones in the trash. That said, LED light bulbs have recyclable components, so you may want to do that, 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 accept them for recycling, so it’s best to check out yours. Many large retailers, like Home Depot, will take LED bulbs, including LED Christmas lights, for recycling.
Several national recycling websites 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 recycling incandescent and halogen varieties, you will likely 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 tossed in your regular trash.
Can I Repurpose Old Light Bulbs?
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 limited or non-existent and you’d take them to the landfill instead?
Luckily for you, there are many fun, creative projects 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 look like animals or insects like spiders.
- Make 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.
Know the Local Laws and Recycling Rules
Many 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.
Using those pages, you can find where you can place each type of bulb that can be recycled and which kind 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 to drop off bulbs you want to recycle and how to pack your trashed bulbs to prevent injury or environmental damage.
The fact is that rules regarding recycling light bulbs vary significantly 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 significantly between towns and cities in the same state.
What is the Future of Light Bulb Disposal?
One of the most prominent examples of the various rules is California’s recent light bulb regulation, which currently bans halogen and incandescent light bulbs altogether. Since everyone must change their older bulbs, disposal rules will become an issue, whereas the laws in other states aren’t so strict.
As the strict rules in California make clear, the days when you can buy any light bulb you want are over, which means you will soon have to dispose of all old incandescent bulbs.
Suppose you’re concerned about the environment and don’t want to add more pollutants to nature, then you must. In that case, you and millions of other people worldwide will increasingly wish to consider their actions’ effects on the planet’s state. That means it is likely that concern over stuffing landfills with more and more “trash” will grow.
All of that adds to a significant level of change and concern for our actions and their environmental impact. That means a much greater call to recycle the things we do and less of an emphasis on things we can “throw away.”
While the immediate effect of throwing away incandescent light bulbs isn’t a significant increase in concern because the danger isn’t apparent and direct, however, as we fill landfills and then, eventually, run out of landfill space, the problems are likely to be broader and more thoughtful, which will mean ever-stricter regulations.
Let’s be real here. Putting the proper 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 complicates 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.