How to Recycle CFLs

While CFLs are more energy efficient, they do contain a small amount of mercury, meaning they should be handled with care and disposed of properly. Many cities accept them at a household hazardous waste (HHW) facilities.

Find Recycling Guides for Other Materials

Frequent CFL Recycling Questions

Both the FDA and EPA assure us that CFLs are not dangerous. But the energy-saving bulbs are often a target for controversy due to their mercury content. Although CFLs require a small amount of mercury (about 4 milligrams per bulb on average) to produce light, the bulbs do not emit mercury as they operate – meaning you are only at risk for exposure if a bulb breaks.

Even if a CFL happens to break in your home, remember that most of the mercury content is bound to the bulb and is therefore harmless. On average, total mercury emissions from a broken CFL are only about 1.4 milligrams. That said, any level of mercury exposure carries potential health concerns, but due to the small amount of mercury and short duration of exposure, a broken CFL is not likely to present any significant risk to you or your family.

If you are concerned about using these bulbs due to mercury content, consider opting for a shatter-resistant CFL, which has a coating on the outside that greatly reduces the risk of breakage. Although a bit more expensive, LEDs are extremely durable and do not contain mercury, so you can also go with those as an alternative lighting solution.

Don’t panic. The EPA provides a detailed list of tips and cleanup instructions to help you safely dispose of a broken CFL in your home. This list is widely considered to be the go-to resource for safe CFL cleanup and disposal, so following these steps carefully will ensure minimal exposure to mercury vapor.

If you’ve broken a CFL in the past and did not follow these instructions, the EPA assures you, “Don’t be alarmed, these steps are only precautions that reflect best practices for cleaning up a broken CFL.” Make note of these instructions in case you ever break a bulb again, but don’t stress about exposure from a prior cleanup.

The average lifetime for Energy Star qualified CFLs is 10,000 hours – meaning your bulb will last about nine years (based on three hours of use per day). To put that in perspective, standard incandescents last about 1,000 hours, or less than a year at three hours of use per day.

Keep in mind that poorly designed CFLs may burn out before their time. So, remember to look for the Energy Star certification to ensure top quality.

An Energy Star qualified CFL will save about $6 per year in electricity costs and $40 or more over the lifetime of the bulb.
Light-emitting diodes (LEDs) last longer and use less energy than CFL bulbs, but they are also more expensive and may not be ideal for all budgets. Specialty LEDs, such as those used for recessed lighting, are priced in the $10 to $50 range, while standard Energy Star qualified LED bulbs are priced between $8 and $20. Using these prices, typical payback for an LED bulb is two to four years.

If you’re ready to make the up-front investment, LEDs can save you more than $70 in energy costs over the lifetime of the product, and you can expect the bulb to last 25,000 hours – about 22 years, based on three hours of use per day.

Because CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, the EPA recommends that consumers take advantage of available local recycling options for burnt-out bulbs. Most major home improvement retailers, including Lowe’s, Home Depot and Ace Hardware, offer free recycling collection for unbroken bulbs.