Do the right thing – recycle, don’t throw out, your fluorescents

Recycling fluorescent light bulbs is important for your own health and that of the planet. Fluorescent bulbs contain a trace amount of mercury (about 1/100th of what’s in a mercury thermometer) so proper fluorescent disposal is very important.

Remember, it’s better to use fluorescent than incandescent lights, even though fluorescent lights contain mercury. Coal-fired power plants emit tons of mercury every year. Some people argue that the fluorescent light over its lifetime will save more in mercury emissions than the mercury it contains, though this isn’t really true.

Still, replacing an incandescent with a compact fluorescent can save up to a ton of CO2 emissions, and if you recycle the fluorescent bulb then no mercury is released by the bulb itself. You come out ahead on both counts.

It may be legal in some jurisdictions to simply throw your used energy efficient fluorescent bulbs and tubes in the trash. Some websites recommend consulting with your local environmental or waste management department to find out what is legal. My advice is to not worry about what is legal and do instead what is right – recycling fluorescent light bulbs so that you prevent any mercury from escaping into the environment.

Mercury recycling trash bin

Fluorescent lights contain mercury – please recycle!
Photo by London Permaculture via FLICKR

People throw out around 600 million fluorescent lights per year, which works out to 30,000 pounds of mercury. Just a half teaspoon of mercury can contaminate a stream or small lake, making the fish unsafe for human consumption. Recycling fluorescent light bulbs is a small effort on your part and makes a big difference to the health of our environment.

Start by contacting your local waste management department. (Do a search on “waste management” and include your state/province and town/city/county name). Phone them, and ask about locations for recycling fluorescent light bulbs. Don’t let them tell you it’s safe to throw them away! You might even add ‘fluorescent’ to your search. For example, I tried this search on Google for my own city:

“waste management” toronto ontario fluorescent

And immediately found a page from the City of Toronto Solid Waste Management department that includes this text:

The City of Toronto directs residents to safely dispose of fluorescent tubes and CFLs using one of the following options:

  • Drop off fluorescent tubes and CFLs at one of the City’s six Solid Waste drop-off depots…
  • Make an appointment with Toronto’s “Toxics Taxi” service … to pick up your HHW.
  • Bring fluorescent tubes and CFLs to your local Community Environment Day event.

If your local waste management department can’t tell you where to recycle fluorescent bulbs, try your local building center or lighting store. Many of the big-box building centers have CFL recycling boxes. If they don’t provide fluorescent recycling boxes, talk to the store manager and tell them they should! My local Home Depot has had a CFL recycling bin at the store entrance for several years now.

If you can’t find a government department or building / lighting center for fluorescent bulb disposal, use your local phone directory or online search and look for fluorescent lamp recyclers.

An easy alternative if there is no local way of recycling fluorescent light bulbs is to purchase a disposal kit, which you can then mail back to the supplier. For example, the fluorescent recycling kit shown at right, availalable for about $130 from, can be used to store unbroken compact fluorescent light bulbs, and short (up to two foot long) tubes, until the box is full; you then send it, postage prepaid, to a facility where the fluorescent bulbs are recycled. This 16″ X 16″ X 25″ box holds 22 T-12 tubes, or 32 T8 tubes, or 225 CFLs. The package includes a poly liner, instructions, terms and conditions and prepaid return shipping label, available for Continental US states only.

What happens when you don't recycle fluorescent bulbs

What happens when you don’t recycle
Photo by mrjoro via FLICKR

If you’re unable to find an easy way to recycle your fluorescent light bulbs, or if you want to do some good in the world, start an energy efficient fluorescent recycling program of your own. A friend of mine started a program for recycling fluorescent light bulbs and dead batteries at our local public school, so anyone in the community has an easy way of safely recycling fluorescent light bulbs whenever they need to. The bulbs at the school are regularly removed and sent to a toxic waste depot where they are safely recycled. That encourages people to recycle them instead of throwing them out.

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