How to dispose of hazardous household waste: Light Bulb Edition!

Aug 16 2011

We all at one point or another have encountered the question of what do you do with household materials and products that can’t be put in the trash yet can’t be recycled in a conventional manner either. The big question then is what to do with these products?!?! Sometimes, for lack of better options, we shove these things in a cabinet or drawer in an attempt to deny their existence. We all know, however, that this is a temporary fix and that ultimately it will come back to haunt us in the form of clutter. Other times, we trash or flush these items but not without feeling a certain degree of guilt. Over the next few days we will explore how to dispose of light bulbs, batteries, electronics (including computers and mobile phones), and toxic materials (including paint and pesticides) in a clean and green way!

Light bulbs

Light bulbs can be classified in 3 general categories:

a) Compact Florescent Lights (CFL)    b) Energy-saving bulbs  c) Incandescent bulbs

The former two contain mercury which is hazardous to both the environment and our health. For this reason the bulbs should NOT be tossed in the trash or your in your regular recycling bin. Virtually all material that makes up a light bulb is recyclable. Remember that if the mercury ends up in the ocean it will be consumed by marine life and ultimately end up our dinner plates!

Pregnant women who are exposed to mercury can pass it on to their fetus which can in turn result in birth defects including but not limited to: mental retardation, a lack of coordination, blindness, seizures, and the inability to speak. There are a few ways to dispose of these. Firstly, you can research your local recycling centers to see which one will recycle these bulbs. Another alternative, is to check with your local hardware store and see if they have a recycling program in place.

*Note: If one of these mercury containing light bulbs break you need to ensure that you clean it up and dispose of it in a safe manner. DO NOT use a vaccum, or broom (this will increase exposure).

a) Air out the area where the bulb broke. Keep children, pets, and pregnant women away from the affected area.

b) Put on rubber or latex gloves, pick up all pieces of glass and place in a ziploc bag.

c) Use a squeegee or piece of cardboard to gather all the mercury beads in a pile.

d) Use an eye-droplet to collect the beads.

e) Put the beads on a damp paper towel.

f) Put the paper towel in the ziploc bag.

g) put everything involved in the clean up including the gloves in a trash bag.

h) contact your local health department, municipal waste authority, or local fire department to find out how to dispose of the waste safely.

*Keep in mind that the same clean-up process holds true for all items containing mercury (i.e: thermometers)

Tomorrow we will discuss the different kinds of batteries that exist and how to dispose of them accordingly!


  1. Recycling hazardous waste 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: http://vaporlok.blogspot.com/2010/05/layers-of-protection-packaging-used.html
    If a bulb breaks, consumers can learn more about clean-up procedures here: http://www.epa.gov/cfl/cflcleanup-detailed.html

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  2. Action requires knoldewge, and now I can act!

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