Don’t Toss That CFL in the Trash

Putting CFLs in the trash can endanger waste management workers.

Compact fluorescent bulbs are touted as extremely energy efficient, long-lasting, and cost-effective.  This is all true: Compared to a standard incandescent bulb, each CFL lasts 10 times as long and saves $30 in energy costs.  You may have also heard about the mercury content of CFLs and the warning that they should never be thrown in the trash.

So, why is this bulb considered safe for your home but not for the trash?

The mercury content is not an issue unless the bulb breaks.  Each bulb contains an extremely small amount, and it’s not released at all as long as the bulbs are intact.  Given that information, most people assume that the CFL recycling issue has to do with preventing toxins from leaching into the soil in the landfill.

Actually, that’s not quite it, because chances are CFLs are going to break in the trash before they ever get to the landfill, which means the people with health concerns at stake are waste management workers.

Waste management workers can unknowingly handling trash with broken CFLs and become exposed to dangerous levels of mercury.

If your CFL burns out, it’s very important to find an EPA approved CFL recycling site.  Some home improvement stores, such as Lowes and Home Depot, collect CFLs for recycling at retail locations.  You can also find recycling locations in your area on the EPA bulb recycling site.

If a bulb does break in your home, follow these steps:  Put gloves on, grab a mask to protect yourself against the dust, and gather the broken bits into a sealed container using a damp paper towel.  Turn off your central air or fans for 15 minutes, and drop off the container at a recycling center.  For more details, check out the EPA’s Cleanup Instructions.

Emily Widle

Emily graduated from UNC Chapel Hill with a degree in journalism. She enjoys scouring the news to report on the latest in the lighting industry as well as bringing valuable remodeling tips and exemplar home projects to light.

3 thoughts to “Don’t Toss That CFL in the Trash”

  1. Thanks for the awesome information, Emily. As our new recycling and ‘green’ paradigm emerges in the mainstream, it’s practical information like this that helps us to get there.


  2. As this article states, CFLs and fluorescent bulbs cannot be simply disposed of in the trash, but require special handling. Like all mercury-containing fluorescent lights, CFLs should be properly stored, transported and recycled to prevent these fragile bulbs from breaking and emitting hazardous mercury vapor. They cannot be thrown away in the trash, but should be taken to a recycling center or disposed of by using a proven recycling box. As CFLs and fluorescent bulbs are steadily replacing incandescents, it is important for consumers to understand the importance of properly recycling them. A recent study conducted by the University of Minnesota tested the effectiveness of various packages in containing mercury vapor emitted from broken fluorescent lamps. The study found that many packages do not sufficiently contain mercury vapor, such as single-layer cardboard boxes (representing the original manufacturer’s box or container) as well as single layer boxes with a sealed plastic bag. Just one configuration—consisting of a zip-closure plastic-foil laminate bag layered between two cardboard boxes—minimized exposure levels below acceptable occupational limits, as defined by state and federal regulations and guidelines. Find out more about this proven packaging method at

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