blue beams of two LED lamps

With limited sunlight during the winter months, increased lighting is a must. And when 75 percent of outdoor lightning is expected to be light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs by 2020, chances are good that you have some LEDs in the house. But what happens when these bulbs burn out?

First, the good news: LED bulbs last up to 50,000 hours, way longer than halogen, fluorescent, and incandescent bulbs. They fit most fixtures and will cut your energy use considerably. So, buying LEDs should limit your need for bulb disposal and save you money.

When it comes to recycling, the news about LEDs isn’t so good. The most commonly accepted light bulbs for recycling are compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) and fluorescent tubes, because they contain mercury. This is both a valuable material and hazardous if exposed to humans, so fluorescent bulbs are classified as universal waste and therefore accepted by retailers like Home Depot and Lowe’s, in addition to local household hazardous waste (HHW) programs.

String Light Recycling Options

After the holidays, you may have some burnt-out string lights you need to recycle. Nowadays, most string lights use LED bulbs. The good news is Home Depot will accept these for recycling, and has recycled more than 2.5 million string lights since 2008.

If you’re willing to pay for shipping, you can mail your string lights to companies like Christmas Light Source and HolidayLEDs. When you send in your lights for recycling, these companies offer a discount coupon towards the purchase of new lights. And the Christmas Light Source donates proceeds from its recycling program to Toys for Tots.

Something else to consider with string lights: You may only need to replace one bulb for the entire string to work again. You can buy replacement bulbs online for easy installation.

string LED lights
Before you give up on your string lights, you might need to replace just one LED bulb for the entire string of lights to work again. Image: StockSnap, Pixabay

Mail-in Programs

For LED bulbs, the best recycling option is going to be mail-in programs. Some of these companies will send you a pre-paid recycling box you can fill with bulbs for recycling. In most cases, they accept all types of bulbs — not just LEDs.

After receiving your bulbs, these programs separate the glass bulb from the metal ballast and send those materials to the appropriate recyclers. The color of the bulb will not affect the recycling process.

The Future of LED Recycling

Much is still to be determined with the recycling of LED bulbs, as their sales have jumped so drastically in the past 10 years. In 2009, there were fewer than 500,000 common home LED bulbs, according to the Department of Energy, and that number jumped to almost 80 million in 2014.

Because they are designed to last so long (just like solar panels), we can expect LED bulb disposal to surge in the next 10 to 20 years. Will manufacturers start offering take-back programs or will legislation be drafted to address the problem? We don’t know yet. But it’s worth noting that neither of these solutions were offered for incandescent bulbs, which LEDs have replaced as the go-to lighting source in America.


By Trey Granger

Trey Granger is a former senior waste stream analyst for Earth911.