Low-energy lightbulbs contain various components, some of which are potentially toxic if allowed to contaminate the environment when bulbs are broken or disposed of carelessly. A common concern is the mercury in compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs), although this amounts to only a few milligrams per bulb, often much less.
LEDs are considered more 'environmentally friendly', but even these can contain heavy metals such as lead and arsenic, found particularly in coloured LEDs, as well as valuable elements such as nickel and even rarer elements.
So safe disposal of lightbulbs not only protects the user and the wider environment, but also enables component materials to be recycled and reused, thus eliminating large amounts of waste and reducing the need for new raw materials.
Recycling old bulbs
When lightbulbs do reach the end of their life, they come under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive. This means that they can be taken back to retailers who should be part of a recycling scheme. Staffordshire County Council will also accept the bulbs at household waste and recycling sites (eg St Albans Rd, Stafford.) where they are collected and recycled. This applies also to gas discharge lamps (GDLs, e.g. 'fluorescent' tubes and lamps) and luminaires.
The UK lighting industry and electrical contractors operate the Recolight scheme to comply with the WEEE Directive. Started in 2005, this now has over 3000 collection points in the UK, and recovers over 90% of materials for reuse. Recolight collection points can be found on their website; many are situated at local authority recycling centres, including Stafford, Stone, Rugeley, Newport, Cannock, Uttoxeter, and Stoke. The Recolight website also describes how old bulbs are processed and how the recovered materials are reused.
How do I handle a broken bulb?!
The problem comes when bulbs get broken! The poisonous mercury in a CFL bulb is readily vaporised and can be absorbed through the skin, ingested or breathed in. Whilst the risk is low – an Environment Agency spokesperson said that breaking 5 bulbs in a small, unventilated room might cause short-term risk – it is still best to avoid exposure. A few simple precautions will ensure safety.
Firstly don’t use a vacuum cleaner! Next, open any windows and leave the room for 15 minutes or more. Meanwhile search out some rubber gloves, your dustpan and brush and a suitable plastic bag. Carefully pick up the bits, sweep up the remains and seal them in the bag. Finally, take this to your local waste and recycling site and put it in the hazardous waste receptacle.