Basic Information about Recycling Mercury-Containing Light Bulbs (Lamps)
Types of Universal Waste
Mercury-containing light bulbs include:
- fluorescent bulbs, including compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs);
- high intensity discharge (HID) bulbs, which include mercury vapor bulbs, metal halide and high-pressure sodium bulbs, and are used for streetlights, floodlights, parking lots, and industrial lighting; and
- neon/argon lamps commonly used in the electric sign industry.
Why use fluorescent bulbs if they contain mercury?
Fluorescents are significantly more energy-efficient than incandescent bulbs because they require less energy to provide lighting. Electrical generation from coal-burning power plants also releases mercury into the environment. The use of fluorescent bulbs in place of incandescent bulbs lowers energy use and thus reduces the associated release of mercury from many power plants. Fluorescent bulbs are also more cost effective because they last up to 10 times longer than incandescent bulbs.
The amount of mercury in a fluorescent lamp ranges between 3.5 to 15 milligrams, depending on the type of fluorescent lamp, the manufacturer, and when the fluorescent lamp was manufactured. Although lighting manufacturers have greatly reduced the amount of mercury used in lighting over the past 20 years, they are not yet able to completely eliminate the need for mercury. Millions of mercury-containing lamps are sold in the United States each year, and most are improperly discarded. Although the amount of mercury in a single fluorescent lamp is small, collectively, large numbers of fluorescent lamps contribute to the amount of mercury that is released into the environment. EPA encourages the recycling of all mercury-containing lamps.
- Recycling prevents the release of mercury into the environment. Fluorescent and other mercury-containing bulbs often break when thrown into a dumpster, trash can or compactor, or when they end up in a landfill or incinerator. To prevent the release of mercury, these bulbs should be taken to a recycler before they break. Recyclers recover the mercury and other components for reuse.
- Other materials in the bulbs get reused. Recycling CFLs and other fluorescent bulbs allows the reuse of the glass, metals and other materials that make up fluorescent lights. Virtually all components of a fluorescent bulb, including metal end caps, glass tubing, and phosphor powder, can be separated and recycled. Recyclers often sell the metallic portions as scrap metal. The recycled glass can be remanufactured into other glass products. The mercury can be recycled into new fluorescent lamps and other mercury-containing devices.
- RCRA regulations require many businesses to recycle mercury-containing bulbs.
- Some states have regulations that are more stringent than federal regulations.
What is lamp crushing and drum-top crushing?
Crushing is the intentional breaking of fluorescent and other mercury lamps for the purpose of volume reduction. Crushing reduces the physical volume of lamps but does not recover any mercury. Crushing is not recycling, but it can be a step in the process when the crushed material is further treated by a recycling process that includes retorting. Generally, hazardous waste lamps should not be landfilled as municipal solid waste. Authorized states have varying regulations regarding the handling, recycling and disposal of mercury-containing lamps. Handlers that choose to intentionally crush lamps must do so in accordance with authorized state programs. For more information specific to your state, contact your state environmental regulatory agency.
It should be noted that lamp crushing can release mercury into the air and pose a health threat to crusher operators and building occupants if the crusher is not operating properly. Lamp crushing can pose a threat if operators do not have the appropriate protective equipment.
Drum-top crushing is done using a mechanical device that fits on top of a 55-gallon collection drum. Whole lamps are broken in the system but components are not separated, and the drum will contain hazardous mercury, phosphor powder, glass and mixed metals. Crushing lamps into drums releases mercury into the filter, which also becomes hazardous.
- Learn about the results of EPA's 2006 study on the performance of mercury lamp drum-top crusher (DTC) devices
- Read a 2012 study of results of a survey conducted by the Association of State and Territorial Solid Waste Management Officials (ASTSWMO) about how states regulate drum-top crushers (PDF) (10pp, 659K)