How to recycle your CFLs

Photo: iStockphoto.com/jml5571
Only an environmental choice if you dispose right.

Energy-saving compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) have to be handled differently that incandescent bulbs. Like other fluorescent lamps, CFLs contain mercury, which can be dangerous to human health and the environment. They should be disposed of properly (so no throwing them into your garbage can).

Minimum mercury

Before you panic, the mercury in CFLs is a small amount (between 1 and 25 milligrams, according to Environment Canada or, on average, 5 milligrams) that has been sealed within glass tubing. And according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, this small amount doesn't pose any major health threat. To put it into perspective: An old-fashioned thermometer contains 500 milligrams and a manual thermostat up to 3,000 milligrams—about the equivalent of 100 to 600 CFL bulbs.

Concentrating power

When mercury enters terrestrial or aquatic ecosystems, it gets converted into a more toxic form, methyl mercury, by naturally occurring bacteria, and accumulates in the tissue of plants and animals. So it poses a threat to species that are higher up the food chain. Tuna fish, an ocean predator, is notorious for containing high levels of mercury. So much so that Health Canada recommends that pregnant women and children limit their intake of certain tuna fish species (see the primer “Making Informed Choices About Fish.”).

Why mercury

Mercury allows CFLs to be an efficient light source and have a longer life. One CFL light bulb can save 2000 times its own weight in greenhouse gas emissions. Unfortunately there is currently no substitute for mercury so it remains an irreplaceable element. Scientists and researchers are working on finding alternatives, but until then CFLs will continue to contain mercury.

How to recycle

Most CFL bulbs with the Energy Star logo have a two-year warranty. So if your CFL gives up the ghost before its expiration date, bring it back to the store and ask for a replacement. Once it's time to recycle your CFL, don't just throw it into your household garbage can where it may leak mercury into whatever landfill it find its way to. Instead follow these steps:

•    Place the CFL in a sealed plastic bag.

•    Check with your local Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) Collection Centre to find out if they accept CLFs for drop off. You can also check with your local municipality. If it's inconvenient to visit your HHW Centre, then simply add the CFL to your batteries and other chemical waste for pick up. Municipalities usually have spring and fall pick-up drives. A god starting point is Environment Canada list of regional and provincial recycling programs.

•    Home Depot Canada and RONA offer a national in-store CFL drop off programs.

•    Some IKEA stores offer take back programs of used CFLs.

•    In the United States: Check with Lamp Recycle, a website developed by the National Electrical Manufacturers Association, to find a recycler in your area. U.S. citizens can also contact Earth 911 to find a recycling facility near them

Broken CFL are dangerous

Like any product with mercury, a broken CFL should be handled with care. No one wants to be exposed to this toxic metal, even a small dose. If you break a CFL light bulb, here’s how to clean it up safely:

•    Open nearby windows for 15 minutes or more to release any vapours.

•    Use disposable rubber gloves. Don't pick up fragments with your bare hands.

•    Don't vacuum or use a broom to sweep up the fragments.

•    Use a stiff piece of paper or cardboard to carefully sweep the fragments. Place the paper and fragments into a sealed plastic bag.

•    Wipe the area clean with a damp paper towel and place that towel into the plastic bag along with the fragments.

•    Dispose of the broken CFL the same way you would used batteries or oils. Don't throw them into your household garbage.

Another option

If you're unhappy about the idea of CLFs, check out some of the new LED lights. They are even more energy efficient and last even longer than CFLs, and do not contain mercury.