header_image_top   home_button services about_us contact_us
  Fluorescent Lamp Recycling

What are fluorescent light bulbs?

Fluorescent light bulbs contain some elemental mercury, like the mercury that is found in an older fever thermometer. The mercury can be in vapor, liquid or solid forms. Mercury is a necessary component to the operation of most energy-efficient lighting. Light bulbs that contain mercury use 75% less energy than regular light bulbs and last up to 10 times longer. Fluorescent light bulbs (including compact fluorescent light bulbs) and high intensity discharge (HID) light bulbs are the two most common types of light bulbs that contain mercury. Fluorescent light bulbs are commonly used for the lighting of schools, office buildings, and businesses.

What are compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs)?

Compact fluorescent light bulbs ( CFLs) are an energy efficient and cost effective lighting alternative to regular incandescent light bulbs. A compact fluorescent light bulb fits in a regular light bulb socket or can be plugged into a small lighting fixture. CFLs are typically used in homes and are increasingly used by businesses. They use 75% less energy than incandescent light bulbs and last up to 10 times longer. Every CFL can keep more than 400 pounds of greenhouse gas emissions out of the atmosphere.

CFLs contain an average of 5 milligrams of mercury. However, the amount of mercury can vary depending on the company that makes the light bulb and type of compact fluorescent light bulb.

In most states, households are not required to manage their CFLs as a hazardous waste after they burn out. However, EPA encourages the recycling of all CFLs when they are ready to be discarded. 

Types of Fluorescent Bulbs:

The most widely used types of fluorescent light bulbs in the United States are the linear fluorescent light and the compact fluorescent light (CFL). Less common types of fluorescent bulbs sold in the United States include bug zappers, high output fluorescent lights and cold-cathode fluorescent lights. Additional information about the different types of fluorescent bulbs is available in a fact sheet on mercury use in lighting Your browser may not support display of this image. from the Northeast Waste Management Officials' Association (NEWMOA).

Linear fluorescent light
The standard straight “linear” tube comes in a variety of diameters and lengths. For example, the T-4 is ½ inch in diameter and often used under kitchen cabinets. The T-8 is 1 inch in diameter and the T-12 is 1½ inches in diameter. Variations of the linear tube include the “U-tube” bent in half to form a U-shape, and the “circline” tube bent into a circle. Linear, U-tube and circline fluorescents are used for general illumination purposes, and are widely used in commercial buildings, schools, industrial facilities, hospitals and residences

Compact fluorescent light (CFL)
This is a short bulb made of a tube about the diameter of a pencil that has been either folded or twisted, resulting in an overall size that rivals a standard incandescent light bulb. Since the CFL fits into a standard light socket, the bulb and fixture design possibilities are vastly increased over that of a fluorescent tube. CFLs are now available in a variety of shapes, including spiral (twisted), short tube (folded over) and globe. A globe CFL is either round or A-shaped glass that contains within it a spiral or folded tube.

Bug zappers
These devices contain a fluorescent bulb that emits ultraviolet light, attracting unwanted insects.

High output fluorescent light (HO)
These bulbs are used in warehouses, industrial facilities, and storage areas where bright lighting is necessary. High output lamps are also used for outdoor lighting because of their lower starting temperature, and as grow lamps. The light emitted is much brighter than that of traditional fluorescent lamps. However, they are less energy-efficient because they require a higher electrical current.

Cold-cathode fluorescent light (CCFL)
These are small diameter, fluorescent tubes that are used for backlighting in liquid crystal displays (LCDs) on a wide range of electronic equipment, including computers, flat screen TVs, cameras, camcorders, cash registers, digital projectors, copiers, and fax machines. They are also used for backlighting instrument panels and entertainment systems in automobiles. Cold-cathode fluorescent lamps operate at a much higher voltage than conventional fluorescent lamps, which eliminates the need for heating the electrodes and increases the efficiency of the lamp 10 to 30 percent. They can be made of different colors, and have high brightness and a long life.

Mercury is used in a variety of light bulbs. Mercury is useful in lighting because it contributes to the bulbs' efficient operation and life expectancy. Fluorescent and other mercury-added bulbs are generally more energy efficient and last longer than incandescent and other equivalent forms of lighting. While the bulbs are being used, the mercury within them poses no health risk.

Fluorescent lamps operate at a very low gas pressure. They produce light when an electric current passes between two electrodes (also called cathodes) in a tube filled with low-pressure mercury vapor and inert gases, such as argon and krypton. The electric current excites the mercury vapor in the tube, generating radiant energy, primarily in the ultraviolet (UV) range. The energy causes a phosphor coating on the inside of the tube to "fluoresce," converting the UV light into visible light. Changing the composition of the phosphor powder inside fluorescent tubes changes the spectrum of light produced. Mercury is present in the lamp in both the phosphor powder and in the vapor.

Fluorescent lamps require a ballast, which is a device used to provide and control the voltage in the lamp, and stabilize the current in the circuit. Fluorescent lamps are more energy efficient than incandescent light bulbs of an equivalent brightness because more of the energy input is converted to usable light and less is converted to heat. They also have a longer lamp life.

Depending on the type of fluorescent lamp, they can contain a wide range of mercury, from greater than 0 up to 100 milligrams (mg). According to the National Electrical Manufacturers Association (NEMA), about half of the fluorescent lamps manufactured by their members and sold in the U.S. contain 5 to 10 mg of mercury; while a quarter contain 10 to 50 mg.

Fluorescent lamps and CFLs contain very small amounts of Mercury.  The EPA recommends that consumers take advantage of recycling options for CFLs. Most mercury vapor inside fluorescent light bulbs becomes bound to the inside of the light bulb as it is used. EPA estimates that the rest of the mercury within a CFL - about 14 percent - is released into air or water when it is sent to a landfill, assuming the light bulbs is broken.

How Do I Recycle My Light Bulbs?

You can recycle your fluorescent light bulbs and CFLs by requesting a mail back box from us. Simply order the box, pack up the lamps inside the box, apply the pre-paid postage label, and send your bulbs to us. We will take care of the rest. Click here for our fluorescent light bulb recycling prices.

What If I Break a Light Bulb?
If you break a fluorescent light bulb visit http://www.chemwise.org/bulb-cleanup.html for complete clean up details.

Fluorescent Lamps and Mercury

EPA encourages the use of fluorescent lamps because installation of energy-efficient lamps reduces the demand for electricity, which in turn reduces mercury and green house gas (GHG) emissions from utility boilers, particularly coal-fired boilers. Once the fluorescent lamps are burnt out (spent), EPA strongly encourages that they be recycled. Proper recycling not only reduces the release of mercury from spent lamps into the environment, but also allows for the reuse of the glass, metals and other components of the spent fluorescent lamps.

Because fluorescent lamps contain mercury, some spent lamps are hazardous waste under federal and state regulations. In some states, hazardous waste lamps may be managed as universal waste. It is the responsibility of the generator of spent lamps to determine whether the lamps are hazardous waste and to ensure that the lamps are managed in accordance with federal and state regulations.

Mercury-containing lamps include tubular and compact fluorescent lamps, high intensity discharge lamps (mercury vapor, metal halide, high pressure sodium), and fluorescent backlights in flat panel and liquid crystal displays commonly used as monitors, TVs and instrument displays.

Fluorescent lamps are an energy-efficient lighting option, using only 20 to 25% of the energy required for incandescent and other lighting technologies. Installation of high-efficiency lamps reduces the demand for electricity, which in turn reduces the amount of mercury and green house gas (GHG) emissions from utility boilers, particularly coal-fired boilers. Fluorescent lamps are more cost-effective because they last up to 10 times longer than incandescent lamps.

There are several different kinds of fluorescent lamps, including linear tubes, U-shaped lamps, and compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs). The amount of mercury in a fluorescent lamp varies, depending on the type of lamp, manufacturer and date of manufacture, but typically ranges between 1.7 milligrams and 15 milligrams.

According to the Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers, approximately 670 million fluorescent lamps were disposed of or recycled in the United States in 2003 (Association of Lighting and Mercury Recyclers, 2004). Now that CFLs are becoming more popular, it is estimated that the total volume of spent fluorescent lamps will increase significantly. Discarded lamps release approximately two to four tons of mercury per year into the environment. Based on information from Energy Star (2007) and Cain et al. (2007), EPA estimates that 1% of human-caused mercury releases into the air per year in the United States come from fluorescent lamps, including all commercial and residential applications. However, it takes only a very small amount of mercury to expose people or contaminate a water supply.

Mercury is not released when lamps are intact or in use; exposure is possible only when a lamp has been broken. When a lamp is broken some of the mercury in the bulb is immediately released into the air as mercury vapor. In addition, if a broken bulb is not cleaned up, or if it is cleaned up improperly, additional mercury vapor will be released into the air over time (Aucott et al, 2003; Maine DEP; 2008).

EPA encourages businesses to recycle all of their spent fluorescent lamps, including CFLs.

Please note that many states have specific requirements for lamp management. It is important that you be aware of the state requirements when developing your lamp recycling program. In addition, certain fluorescent lamps may be a hazardous waste. If they are, additional requirements will likely apply to the management of those lamps.8 Moreover, some states require special handling of fluorescent lamps, including the recycling of all fluorescent lamps, even if they are not considered hazardous waste. Finally, even lamps that are not regulated as “hazardous wastes” should be managed carefully, because all fluorescent lamps release mercury vapor to the air when broken.

A. Handling and Storage of Spent Lamps

Lamps should be handled and stored in a way that avoids breakage. To help your employees minimize lamp breakage and the release of mercury into the environment, we recommend that you consider the following lamp management storage principles:

  • Designate an area within your facility to store lamps. Storage locations should be away from high-traffic areas; bigger facilities may need more than one location for easier access. The storage rooms should be clean, dry, and free of broken lamp debris. Ideally, this area would have an air handling system that is independent from the rest of the building and does not re-circulate or re-introduce air through vents and intakes.

  • Employees should know whom to call if they see that a lamp is burned out.

  • Workers should remove spent lamps carefully to prevent breakage, and should immediately place lamps in containers and locations where they will not break.

  • Spent lamps should be stored and packed carefully in order to help prevent breakage and exposure to mercury. To this end, you should work with your recycler to fully understand the proper procedures for filling and securing boxes or containers of lamps. You can purchase specially made lamp containers for spent lamp storage.
Properly manage lamps when they break. All broken lamps will release mercury into the air upon breakage and for extended periods of time if not cleaned up. Create procedures for reporting and managing broken lamps, and if lamps are accidentally broken, workers should follow the clean-up procedures at www.epa.gov/mercury/spills/index.htm#fluorescent. Keep broken lamps in a sealed container (preferably glass or metal), remove the container from the building as soon as possible, and keep the container in a cool place, away from high-traffic areas. Containers of broken lamps should not be opened to add or remove broken lamps. Also, follow Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), EPA, and state regulations when managing broken lamps.

B. Recycling Fluorescent Lamps

EPA strongly encourages the recycling of all spent fluorescent lamps (including CFLs) as the preferred approach to managing lamps throughout their full product lifecycle.10 Proper recycling not only minimizes the release of mercury into the environment, but also allows for the reuse of the glass, metals and other materials that make up a fluorescent lamp. Virtually all components of a lamp can be recycled. Recycling fluorescent lamps reduces the amount of waste going into a landfill, saves energy and reduces GHG and mercury emissions.

Step 1: Assess Your Facility

Assessing your facility is a key initial step. In assessing your facility, you should consider the following questions: How many fluorescent lamps are in the facility? Where are they located? How often do you change your lamps? How many spent lamps are you generating each month/year? How are you handling and storing the spent lamps? Do all employees know who to call if a lamp burns out?

Step 2: Become Knowledgeable About State and Federal Requirements for Managing Fluorescent Lamps

Consult your state's regulations for state-specific requirements for managing fluorescent lamps that may apply to your facility.11 Lamp recyclers should be aware of state and federal requirements and should be able to provide assistance in this area.

Step 3: Select a Recycler

Select a recycling contractor that will best serve your needs and provide you the assurance that your spent lamps are properly managed. Your lamp distributor might offer a recycling service.

Step 4: Establish a Process for Handling and Storing Spent Lamps

Lamps should be handled and stored in a way that prevents breakage. Designate an area where lamps are stored prior to recycling. See Section III.A for recommendations on storage locations, packaging and containers for spent lamps and other information about lamp handling and storage.

Step 5: Procedures for Getting Spent Lamps to the Recycler

There are several options to consider when recycling spent lamps.
  • Pick-up Service

  • The type and frequency of pick-up required is important to determine prior to selecting a recycler. Pick-up options will be determined by the size of the facility and the number of spent lamps generated. The options include:

    • Milk-Run – This is the most common type of pick-up. A milk-run is a route in which the recycler schedules a number of pick-ups from you. Milk-run collections are usually run on a set schedule; the frequency of the collection should be determined with the recycler at the time of contract negotiations. The number and frequency of spent lamps generated by an individual company will determine the collection frequency.

    • Dedicated Pick-up – When a facility generates enough spent lamps to fill a truck, it may be cost effective to contract for a dedicated pick-up (either once a month or upon request).

  • Mail-In or Box Program

    This option is generally more cost-effective if you generate a relatively small amount of spent lamps. In this type of program, a recycler can provide a container to fill with the spent lamps. When the container is full, it can be sent to the recycler via a prepaid ground mail shipment program. If you are interested in this option, you should work with your lamp recycler to ensure that proper packaging, labeling and shipping requirements are met.

  • Self-Transport

    If you generate a small amount of spent lamps, have the capacity to transport them, or are located in close proximity to the recycler, you may choose to transport the spent lamps yourself to the recycler. Lamp recyclers can provide boxes that are designed to reduce breakage during transport to a recycling facility.

  • Household Hazardous Waste Collection

    Some businesses that generate small amounts of spent lamps may be able to take the lamps to a locally operated household hazardous waste collection facility in their community. Businesses should check with their local hazardous waste collection facility first to see if this is permissible.

Step 6: Educate Employees

Inform your employees about the dangers of mercury, the importance of minimizing the release of mercury, and your decision to recycle all spent fluorescent lamps. Employees should be trained in accordance with applicable state and federal requirements. Under provisions of OSHA's Hazard Communication Standard, employers are responsible for informing employees of the hazards and the identities of workplace chemicals to which they are exposed.

Step 7: Record and Track Data

The recycler should provide documentation that the spent lamps have been properly recycled (e.g., a receipt or a certificate of recycling).

Checklist of Recommended Best Management Practices for Lamp Handling and Storage

Click here to download a Checklist of Recommended Best Management Practices for Lamp Handling and Storage