Can I throw CFL lightbulbs in the garbage?
April 7, 2015 5:48 PM   Subscribe

When a compact florescent lightbulb dies, what is the right way to throw it away?

I never feel sure what to do these when one stops working. Is it possible to recycle them? Is throwing them in the trash somehow dangerous? Are the contents toxic? Significantly more toxic than other things I throw away?

Is there some recommended best practice for dealing with compact florescent bulbs?
posted by ewok_academy to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Take them to your city's hazardous waste site. e.g. No, you cannot throw them out. They contain mercury.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 5:50 PM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

You can recycle them at a Lowe's or Home Depot.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 5:52 PM on April 7, 2015 [8 favorites]

They contain mercury, so depending on how your trash is managed, mercury can get into the water/air if put in the trash.

Here's the EPA's take on recycling CFLs but you'll need to figure out how your municipality is recycling them (or not recycling).
posted by littlewater at 5:52 PM on April 7, 2015

Find a recycling location. My local Home Depot collects them, as do other home improvement chains.
posted by rakaidan at 5:53 PM on April 7, 2015

The Whole Foods near me collects them at the customer service desk.
posted by needs more cowbell at 8:26 PM on April 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Do not put them in the trash.
Several states (CA, MN, NY, ME, CT, RI, and others) have laws prohibiting it.

Nearly any store that sells florescent bulbs will have a recycling program for them.
posted by artdrectr at 10:39 PM on April 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Or any recycling station should accept them. They do where I exchange CRV plastic bottles for cash.
posted by Rash at 8:52 AM on April 8, 2015

Fwiw, I don't think there is any NY law prohibiting households (as opposed to businesses) from putting CFLs in the trash.

From here:

"Can I throw my burned out CFL in the trash?

"As of now, New York State households are exempt from the ordinary hazardous waste regulations of businesses, so CFLs may legally be disposed as normal household trash, although NYSDEC does not recommend this practice. The New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) and the NYSDEC are strongly encouraging New Yorkers to use and recycle them safely. Careful recycling of CFLs prevents the release of mercury into the environment and allows for the reuse of glass, metals and other materials that make up CFLs. NYSERDA and the NYSDEC recommend that consumers take advantage of available local recycling options for CFLs, such as household hazardous waste collection events and the new CFL Collection Program operated by participating ENERGY STARĀ® retailers. The agencies are also working with CFL manufacturers and major U.S. retailers to expand recycling and proper disposal options."

That being said, I bring mine to Home Depot.
posted by merejane at 9:15 AM on April 8, 2015

Is it possible to recycle them?

Yes. Your local council should be able to tell you who takes them in your area.

Is throwing them in the trash somehow dangerous?

Probably not to you, unless they break in your house or in your bin. Wherever they do get broken, they will release a small amount (milligrams) of mercury, probably mostly as vapor. So there's a fair chance that your local garbage truck is trailing a detectable mercury vapor plume from the busted CFLs your neighbors are putting in their bins.

Are the contents toxic?

Yes, mercury is a cumulative toxin. However, the quantity inside a CFL is quite small: about a thousandth of what you'd find in an old-school under-the-tongue mercury bulb thermometer. On the other hand, a broken CFL will typically release most of its mercury content as vapor, and lungs are much more efficient mercury absorbers than gut or skin; huffing a thousand broken CFLs would get you a rather higher bodily mercury load than swallowing the contents of a bitten thermometer.

Significantly more toxic than other things I throw away?

Probably depends on how much chlorine bleach or lead paint dust you throw away.

On a systemic level, every CFL that displaces an incandescent lamp actually reduces total atmospheric mercury emissions even if the CFL ends up broken rather than recycled, because there's a small amount of mercury in coal. In fact there's enough mercury in coal that the extra energy required by incandescent lighting compared to a CFL over its service life would cause emission of more mercury vapor from the power station than is contained in the CFL.

Even so, recycling your CFLs is the responsible thing to do.
posted by flabdablet at 10:12 AM on April 8, 2015

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