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Because You Asked

Are Light Bulbs E-Waste?

By Recyclebank |

Let’s shed some light on bulb disposal.


Dear Recyclebank: Are used incandescent light bulbs considered "electronic waste"? –Patrick R.

Dear Patrick: “Electronic waste” (or “e-waste”) isn’t a term usually ascribed to light bulbs, but rather some of the more complex electronics, like TVs, computers, cell phones, refrigerators, etc., that contain difficult-to-recycle, comingled, and sometimes dangerous materials. Light bulbs are similarly difficult to sort into ordinary recycle bins, but proper disposal will vary by bulb type and location. Below are some general disposal guidelines, but we recommend consulting with local authorities for the most current regulations and policies using the National Electronic Manufacturers Association (NEMA) database.

Incandescent bulbs had long been the standard for most household fixtures before more energy-efficient options, like CFLs and LEDs, were affordable enough for the average consumer. These bulbs work by passing electricity through a thin metal filament, producing light and heat. Unfortunately, most of the electricity goes to producing heat, making these bulbs relatively inefficient compared to their newer competition. Used incandescent bulbs cannot be recycled at home. Since they don’t contain any toxic gases, it is possible to dispose of them in the garbage (wrapped in something to prevent exposure to broken glass), but we recommend checking to see if your local recycling center will accept a drop-off or making use of them for creative DIY crafts…check out these ornaments!

Halogen bulbs are slightly more energy-efficient than typical incandescents, but follow suit; instead of a metal filament, electricity passes through a tube of (non-toxic) halogen gas to create light and heat. Follow the same disposal protocol for these.

Compact fluorescent lamps, or lights (CFLs either way), are the funky looking spiral shaped bulbs we’ve all gotten used to by now. CFLs produce less heat for their light output, making them much more efficient than their incandescent predecessors. Rather than passing electricity through a metal filament, the electricity is passed through a gas in the bulb (usually mercury). We know mercury presents environmental and health risks, but a CFL only contains “about one hundredth of the mercury content of older thermostats.” Despite the surprisingly low risk, the mercury content of these bulbs warrant them dangerous, and as household hazardous waste [HHW], sometimes illegal to throw in the trash. NEMA recommends bringing or sending used lamps to one of the many recycling centers or retailers that accepts them for recycling, including many large chains like Home Depot, IKEA, Ace Hardware, True Value, and Lowe’s. Be sure to call your local branch to make sure they participate in collection before hauling your bulbs over! If your CFL breaks, please follow the EPA instructions for safe cleanup!

LED lamps use light-emitting diode (LED) technology to make the most efficient use of electricity for light, creating practically no heat waste. As prices come down to compete with those of CFLs and incandescent bulbs, LEDs are taking over the residential lighting market, offering the most electrical savings without the use of mercury. The technology lasts much longer, to boot. For recycling, you can generally follow the same CFL guidelines as above, and find a local bulb collector. Because LEDs are not currently classified as HHW, you may find that e-cyclers accept them as well.

Environmental Science & Technology
National Geographic


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