5 Ways to Dispose of Old CFLs

ENERGY SAVER: Let there be energy-efficient light. (Photo: Robert S. Donovan/Flickr).

By now, green technology early adopters know that LED (light emitting diode) lighting is the future. Take, for example, the 100 watt incandescent light bulb. An equivalent LED bulb would only draw 10 watts — and could easily last 60,000 hours. That's an astonishing energy savings.

But let's face it: $25 light bulbs are still a hard sell, even if they'll recoup many times their purchase price in the form of lower energy bills. That leaves the much cheaper CFL (compact fluorescent lightbulb) as efficiency champ until consumers get over the sticker shock of LED bulbs.

CFLs are a good deal. Shoppers have gotten used to seeing their curly shape on store shelves, and adoption rates have really taken off. About 100 million were sold in the United States last year.

But there's a catch: CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, which is toxic and tough to get out of the environment. CFL bulbs don't belong in your regular trash when they finally burn out. So what to do with them?

We've rounded up five ways (plus a backup plan) to handle retired CFL bulbs without making a mess of the environment. Pick the one that's easiest for you — and feel good about saving on your power bill.

1) Your Local Garbage Service

Probably the best place to start is with whoever currently picks up your household trash or recyclables. If you pay for this service, you'll almost certainly find a customer service number on your bill. Give them a call and ask if they offer CFL or mercury recycling. If not, politely suggest they do so. Here's an opportunity to write a letter, attend a meeting or take some other activist role in highlighting the importance of proper CFL disposal. The appropriate follow-up will depend on whether your trash service is privately or publicly held.

2) Municipal Government

Whether or not local trash service is provided by a private contractor, your local municipality (city, county or parish) is ultimately responsible for waste disposal.

Most phone directories have a "blue pages" directory of local government agencies. Try the listing for sanitation services. While curbside recycling is by no means universal, your area may have designated drop-off locations or periodic CFL collections. Should your local agency not have any CFL-specific provisions, ask about safe disposal of mercury or fluorescent tubes.

3) Retailers

Unless you bought CFLs from Ikea, one of the first major vendors to offer a free take-back program, you're probably going to get some blank stares when you ask the manager of your local store about CFL recycling. It's worth the effort, though: retailers need to know their customers want safe disposal of the good they purchase. If you bought your CFLs from Walmart, consider contacting their corporate headquarters and asking that they establish a company wide CFL-return program.

4) Earth 911

Earth 911 is probably the United States and Canada's largest online clearinghouse of recycling information. Visit their site and enter "CFL" and your ZIP code in the "Find a Recycling Center" field at the top of each page. Alternately, try "mercury" and "fluorescent bulbs." If there's something in your region, it will almost certainly be listed. Earth 911 is currently attempting to expand its coverage to Europe, the first step toward an international registry of recycling options.

5) Commercial Services

There are a variety of for-profit companies that provide CFL and fluorescent bulb disposal by mail. Failing a local option, these firms represent a responsible and environmentally friendly channel for CFL recycling. Lightbulbrecycling.com, for instance, will send you a handy, postage-paid plastic pail which will accommodate about 30 CFLs — more than most homes will use in many years. Just drop your spent CFLs in their well-engineered pail, and call FedEx for pick-up. The downside is that the service is quite expensive: about $120 per shipment. At today's prices, this almost triples the unit price of your CFL. On the other hand, with the energy you'll save with each bulb, you're still ahead of the game. You'll also know for sure that your CFLs are being recycled in a safe fashion.

And One More Thing …

If none of these options are available to you, there's a backup plan: storage.

As their name suggests, compact fluorescent bulbs don't take up much room. Unless they're broken or otherwise damaged, CFLs will hold their mercury indefinitely. Rather than disposing of them with household trash, simply store expended CFLs until easy recycling is available in your area. A five-gallon PVC bucket with sealable top can be scrounged from most construction sites or purchased new for less than $10. It should safely contain a couple dozen bulbs. A sturdy cardboard box lined with a heavy plastic garbage bag should also do the trick. Just place your CFL storage container out of harm's way so it won’t be dropped, crushed or otherwise disturbed.

Update: Home Depot has become the largest U.S. retailer to launch a general CFL recycling program. Almost 2,000 Home Depot locations will now accept any type of CFL for recycling without charge. Canada's Home Depot stores began a CFL recycling program in November 2007.

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