Getting rid of old light bulbs shouldn’t be a thoughtless task. The disposal of old incandescent bulbs and CFLs (compact fluorescent lamp), should always be done with a bit more caution than when you throw away leftovers.

Have you ever heard of mercury – not the planet – but the toxic heavy metal that can cause damage to your kidneys, brain, nervous system, and other organs? Mercury vapor is used in CFLs to help transport electrical currents throughout the bulb. Without mercury, CFL’s would be unable to provide light.

The amount of mercury in a CFL is relatively small, but still needs to be taken seriously, especially considering the $252 million dollars Americans spent on CFL bulbs in 2010, according to Energy Star. An average 8,000 hours later, all of these bulbs will die out and need a place for disposal.

Although this may sound alarming, CFLs are more energy efficient than traditional incandescent bulbs, meaning that they require less electricity.  Overall, they reduce mercury emissions, because burning more fossil fuels to produce electricity emits more mercury than CFL bulbs contain, according to the EPA.

When it comes to old light bulbs, recycling is a must.

You should never throw old bulbs into a dumpster or trash can, because there is a high chance that they’ll either break or end up in a landfill or incinerator where they’ll certainly break. Once they break, the mercury inside the bulb will be released into the atmosphere and storm water runoff, which totals 4 tons annually. Still, more mercury is released through the fossil fuels burned to provide electricity to light inefficient incandescent bulbs.

Recycling should be the primary focus – but we’re not talking about traditional recycling. Handling bulbs with extreme caution mitigates any possible mercury exposure, while getting it to the proper hazardous waste centers.

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To dispose of your old bulbs, you’ll want to gather them carefully and then take them to your local hazardous waste center. Even though the amount of mercury in bulbs is usually small, it is still classified as a hazardous waste, according to the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA).

When old bulbs are put in an incinerator, mercury will become airborne and accumulate in the atmosphere – which eventually becomes a problem. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “This airborne mercury can fall to the ground in raindrops, in dust, or simply due to gravity.”

To avoid this scenario, we all need to recycle. Besides minimizing mercury exposure, different parts from the bulb are able to be reused. The glass, metals, and other parts of the bulb can be recycled and used again.

Your work doesn’t end after you’ve recycled your old bulbs.

After you drop off your old bulbs at a hazardous waste center, your next stop will need to be to your nearest hardware store to replace your old bulbs that you just recycled, with new LEDs. Light-Emitting Diodes (LEDs) are more efficient than CFLs and old incandescent bulbs and they don’t contain any mercury.

Even though they contain some metals, LEDs have not been classified as hazardous waste. You can legally throw LEDs in the trash, but it would still be better to recycle them, since they can also be repurposed.

Traditional incandescent light bulbs are not environmentally friendly. The inefficiencies and environmental impact of incandescent bulbs and CFLs don’t exclusively originate from the bulb. The impact starts with the use of fossil fuels needed to make the bulb and allow it to light up, which already emits mercury.

While putting a halt to the manufacturing of incandescent bulbs and CFLs might be out of the picture, we can make changes to dispose of them responsibly. So recycle your bulbs and replace them with LEDs. You’ll help the environment and your wallet in the long run.