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What to Know About Recycling Light Bulbs

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on January 05, 2023

Thomas Edison patented the first incandescent light bulb in 1879. Since then, life hasn’t been the same. Technology has advanced — almost every household in the United States uses some kind of light bulb, and all those light bulbs add up to a lot of waste.

Do you pause every time you go to throw away a burnt-out light bulb? You may have wondered, “Are light bulbs bad for the environment?”

Light bulbs can be recycled to lessen their environmental impact. Some light bulbs mustn’t be thrown away at all — they need to be recycled.

Can You Recycle Light Bulbs?

You can recycle most kinds of light bulbs, but generally, you shouldn’t toss them into your recycling bin. In most cases, recycling light bulbs needs to be done carefully at a facility that can handle them.

This may sound like a lot of work, but there are important reasons for this extra step:

  • Reusable materials. Many of the raw materials inside light bulbs, like metal and glass, are reusable. Reusing these materials saves energy and resources.
  • Hazardous materials. Some light bulbs contain dangerous materials like mercury. If tossed into a landfill, these materials can seep into soil and groundwater.
  • Legality. In some places, it’s illegal to throw light bulbs away with regular trash.

It’s important to know which kind of light bulb you have so you know how to properly dispose of it.

What Are Light Bulbs Made of?

Light bulbs are made of different kinds of materials You may have several different types of light bulbs in your home, including incandescent, halogen, fluorescent or compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), and light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs.

Incandescent light bulbs. For more than 100 years, incandescent light bulbs were the only source of artificial light in homes and businesses. But an incandescent bulb only uses about 10% of its energy to produce light. It converts the remaining energy to heat. This is why an incandescent light bulb is very hot if you touch it while it’s on.

Inside the glass part of an incandescent light bulb are wires attached to a metal socket. The wires inside the bulb include a thin filament stretched between two vertical wires. When electricity passes through these wires, the filament becomes hot, and it glows.

The United States is phasing out incandescent light bulbs in favor of more energy-efficient LED and CFL bulbs.

Halogen light bulbs. Halogen light bulbs are an evolution of incandescent light bulbs. They are used for lighting in homes and commercial areas. They are also used in electric cooktops and headlights as well as for stage and film lighting.

Halogen bulbs have a longer lifespan and are more energy efficient than incandescent light bulbs. But they’re not as efficient as CFL and LED bulbs. Halogen bulbs are extremely hot during use.

Halogen light bulbs are like incandescent bulbs, but there are a few main differences:

  • The bulb is smaller.
  • The materials used in the bulb are stronger.
  • The filament is always made of tungsten.
  • The gas inside the lamp is a halogen gas.

The halogen gas inside a halogen bulb interacts with the tungsten vapor given off by the filament. This creates more heat — and thus more light — for the same amount of electricity used by a standard incandescent.

Halogen bulbs need higher internal pressure to work compared with incandescent bulbs. To make this happen, halogen bulbs are made smaller in size, with strong materials. But the higher pressure can sometimes make these bulbs explode.

Fluorescent and CFL bulbs. Fluorescent bulbs, including CFLs, are more energy efficient than incandescent and halogen bulbs.

A fluorescent light bulb is a glass tube coated with a phosphorescent, or luminescent, substance on the inside and filled with an inert gas, like argon, and a little bit of mercury gas. At the ends of each tube are tungsten electrodes. The bulbs use a ballast to regulate the power to the electrodes.

Electricity flows through the tube, causing the mercury to emit ultraviolet particles. The particles excite the atoms of the phosphorescent coating to create visible light.

CFL bulbs are fluorescent bulbs shaped to replace standard incandescent bulbs. Instead of a long, straight tube, as with the traditional fluorescent bulb, the glass tube is a smaller spiral shape. The smaller spiral mimics the shape and glow of a standard incandescent bulb.

LED bulbs. LED bulbs are the most energy-efficient light bulbs on the market. They often look like regular incandescent bulbs but are more durable, use less energy, and last longer.

The LEDs inside these bulbs use a semiconductor rather than a filament to turn energy into light. This makes these light bulbs cooler to the touch than incandescent and halogen bulbs. LED bulbs lose far less energy as heat than incandescent and halogen bulbs.

How To Recycle Light Bulbs

Different light bulbs — containing different materials — have different recycling needs.

Incandescent and halogen bulbs. Incandescent and halogen bulbs don’t contain any hazardous materials or electrical components. Unless required by local regulations, you aren’t obligated to recycle incandescent and halogen bulbs. But some recycling facilities may recycle the glass and metal components. Check with recycling centers in your area.

Fluorescent and CFL bulbs. Many U.S. states regulate the disposal of fluorescent and CFL bulbs because they contain mercury, which is a hazardous material. 

While mercury is a natural substance, its overuse in the industry has become a danger. Mercury is a neurotoxin, meaning it’s toxic to human nerve tissue. Contact with mercury can cause many health problems. 

While CFL bulbs only contain a small amount of mercury, you should exercise caution if you break one. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers a safe method for cleaning up a broken CFL bulb.

As with other light bulbs, the glass and metal in CFLs are recyclable. Take fluorescent and CFL bulbs to an authorized hazardous waste or recycling facility. You can also find local retailers that support in-store recycling or use a mail-in service.

LED bulbs. LED bulbs contain electrical components and are often considered electronics. Your state may want you to recycle them the same way you would other electronic devices. Check your local recycling centers for more information.

Show Sources

SOURCES:
Center for Energy and Environment: “Light Bulb Recycling: Why and How.”
Energy Education: “CFL light bulb,” “Halogen light,” “Incandescent light bulb.”
National Public Radio: “U.S. speeds up phaseout of incandescent light bulbs in favor of energy-efficient ones.”
U.S. Department of Energy: “The History of the Light Bulb.”
United States Environmental Protection Agency: “Basic Information about Mercury,” “Cleaning Up a Broken CFL,” “Health Effects of Exposures to Mercury,” “Recycling and Disposal of CFLs and Other Bulbs that Contain Mercury.”

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