How to dispose of a broken CFL bulb

by Joe on February 25, 2009

Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFL’s) contain small amounts of mercury. That has led some people to shun them or to get a bit hysterical about their dangers. Here are the facts.

The amount of mercury in the typical CFL bulb is about 5 milligrams, or about as much as can fit on the period at the end of this sentence. That is far less than the mercury that used to be inside thermometers 30 or so years ago. (Yes, I have memories as a kid of playing with the droplets of mercury from a broken thermometer, moving them around on a piece of paper before throwing them out. Thankfully I had the good sense not to touch the mercury.)

While the amount is tiny, you should still follow some precautions if you happen to break a CFL bulb. Here’s what the EPA says you should do:

Before Clean-up: Air Out the Room

  • Have people and pets leave the room, and don’t let anyone walk through the breakage area on their way out.
  • Open a window and leave the room for 15 minutes or more.
  • Shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system, if you have one.

Clean-Up Steps for Hard Surfaces

  • Carefully scoop up glass pieces and powder using stiff paper or cardboard and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
  • Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
  • Wipe the area clean with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place towels in the glass jar or plastic bag.
  • Do not use a vacuum or broom to clean up the broken bulb on hard surfaces.

Clean-up Steps for Carpeting or Rug

  • Carefully pick up glass fragments and place them in a glass jar with metal lid (such as a canning jar) or in a sealed plastic bag.
  • Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder.
  • If vacuuming is needed after all visible materials are removed, vacuum the area where the bulb was broken.
  • Remove the vacuum bag (or empty and wipe the canister), and put the bag or vacuum debris in a sealed plastic bag.

Clean-up Steps for Clothing, Bedding and Other Soft Materials

  • If clothing or bedding materials come in direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from inside the bulb that may stick to the fabric, the clothing or bedding should be thrown away. Do not wash such clothing or bedding because mercury fragments in the clothing may contaminate the machine and/or pollute sewage.
  • You can, however, wash clothing or other materials that have been exposed to the mercury vapor from a broken CFL, such as the clothing you are wearing when you cleaned up the broken CFL, as long as that clothing has not come into direct contact with the materials from the broken bulb.
  • If shoes come into direct contact with broken glass or mercury-containing powder from the bulb, wipe them off with damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes. Place the towels or wipes in a glass jar or plastic bag for disposal.

Disposal of Clean-up Materials

  • Immediately place all clean-up materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area for the next normal trash pickup.
  • Wash your hands after disposing of the jars or plastic bags containing clean-up materials.
  • Check with your local or state government about disposal requirements in your specific area. Some states do not allow such trash disposal. Instead, they require that broken and unbroken mercury-containing bulbs be taken to a local recycling center.

Future Cleaning of Carpeting or Rug: Air Out the Room During and After Vacuuming

  • The next several times you vacuum, shut off the central forced-air heating/air conditioning system and open a window before vacuuming.
  • Keep the central heating/air conditioning system shut off and the window open for at least 15 minutes after vacuuming is completed.

No big deal, really…basically air out the room, scoop it all up with something stiff, use sticky tape to pick up smaller pieces, then vacuum. You should never just vacuum up the shards without following these directions, since you could put the mercury into the air. You should also never wash it down the drain as it could cause future problems for plumbing and septic systems.

Although it may be unavoidable to throw the remains of a broken compact fluorescent bulb in the trash (unless your local government says otherwise), you should never throw out ordinary burned out bulbs that way because the mercury could add up in the environment over time. Just take unwanted CFL bulbs to Home Depot and they’ll be glad to recycle them properly for you.

Yes, CFL bulbs are a bit of a hassle especially if they break, but their energy saving potential makes them very worthwhile for eco friendly homes until better LED alternatives come along in the next few years.

{ 3 trackbacks }

Central Air Conditioning Systems | Sharp Portable Air Conditioners
February 26, 2009 at 7:49 am
How To Dispose of a Broken CFL Bulb | The Greenest Dollar
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February 8, 2010 at 11:12 pm

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Allie February 27, 2009 at 12:50 am

What you’ve described about the clean up of CFLs is more than enough reason never to put another CFL is your house. They are toxic and any amount of mercury is too much. It’s poisonous – extremely!
I’ve switched to LEDs and I’m saving much more money on my electricity compared to CFLs, love the lights (you can get all sorts of colors other than plain white light) and they last forever so I am not having to change the LED bulbs for 10-15 years.
Some of my favorite LED replacement bulbs are the Pharox and the VIVID 36LED and the R-20 and PAR30 and PAR38

Reply

Joe Barrios February 27, 2009 at 8:10 am

I agree that LED lights are a better solution. In terms of energy usage they’re much better than even CFL’s, never mind incandescents.

The problem for many is the price point. Good LED bulbs like the ones you mention are still really expensive, which may put them beyond the reach of some people. That will change in the next few years as the technology improves, I’m sure….but in the meantime, people on a budget looking to save energy won’t have much choice besides the CFL’s.

I still use CFL’s myself…I’m just VERY careful in handling them! :)

Reply

Allie February 27, 2009 at 12:51 am

PS – if it helps, I get my LEDs at http://www.Eaglelight.com which is an online store that has really good prices and excellent customer service. They also have a 100% money back satisfaction guarantee which is the best!

Reply

Neha February 27, 2009 at 2:17 am

Its better to avoid using CFL bulbs at home rather than using them at home..Won’t it be better to use LEDs rather than these fluorescent bulbs..

Reply

Joe Barrios February 27, 2009 at 8:13 am

Absolutely….as I mentioned to the previous commenter, LED’s are much better in terms of energy savings and safety. The problem is their price, they are still too expensive for many people and for them a CFL would make more sense. LED technology is improving all the time so I’m sure in a few years’ time this will no longer be an issue.

Reply

Allie February 27, 2009 at 8:36 am

Hi Joe,
The price is why I recommended the VIVID bulb – it’s most affordable. You have to consider the energy savings too though. The LED lights save enough energy costs to pay for themselves. I don’t know how much you pay in electricity, but here in Southern California, it’s painful to open your electric bill. I even looked at solar to help, but it wasn’t going to do that much. So LED lights have been a HUGE energy saver for me. And on that point, LEDs are MUCH more energy efficient than CFLSs.

Reply

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