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Ask Mr. Tight Watt: CFL Disposal and Mercury  Smart Choices Archive

Ask Mr. Tight Watt: CFL Disposal and Mercury

Ask Mr. Tight-Watt

Question: Do compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs) contain mercury? Are they safe? How do I dispose of them after they burn out? What if I break one? –a Smart Choices reader

Mr. Tight Watt consulted information from Energy Star and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Answer: Yes, CFLs do contain mercury, but surprisingly, what we don’t hear much about is that CFLs actually use less mercury than incandescent bulbs.

Mercury use
Here’s the scoop. CFLs do contain very small amounts of mercury, an average of 4 milligrams (mg) sealed within the glass tubing. As a comparison, Energy Star says that older thermometers contain about 500 mg of mercury. That’s the equivalent of 125 CFLs! And the news for the future is even better: Manufacturers are dropping the mercury levels—there was an average drop of 20 percent in 2007/2008—so that some CFLs contain as little as 1.4 mg per bulb.

Mercury enters our air primarily from burning fossil fuels such as coal, the most common way to produce electricity. CFLs use 75 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb AND last about 6 times longer. That means that a power plant will emit 10 mg of mercury to produce the electricity used to run an incandescent bulb compared to only 2.4 mg of mercury to run a CFL for the same time.

Disposing of CFLs
CFLs are not legally considered to be hazardous waste according to federal solid waste rules. However, it’s still best for the environment if you can dispose of them properly.

Burned out bulbs. The best option is to recycle the bulbs. If your electric cooperative has a recycling tub; you can drop them off at the office. If that’s not feasible, you can seal the bulb in two plastic bags and put it into your outside trash. Never incinerate CFLs.

Broken bulbs. Because of the mercury, you need to take special precautions when cleaning up a broken bulb. First, air out the room by opening the window, leaving the room, and shutting off your heating and cooling system. Carefully pick up glass fragments and place them in a sealed plastic bag or glass jar. Use sticky tape to pick up any small pieces and powder. Wipe clean with damp paper towels or disposable wipes and place in a sealed plastic bag; or vacuum carpet, then empty the vacuum bag and put debris in a sealed plastic bag. Place the debris in an outside trash container, wash your hands thoroughly.

For more information

Ask Mr. Tight Watt a question or check out other questions he has answered.

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