Burned-Out Bulbs

As green living goes mainstream, compact fluorescent light (CFL) bbulbs burn brightly in millions of homes. And there lies the problem: CFLs require mercury to produce light. On average, 25-watt CFLs contain five milligrams (mg) of mercury, an amount that would fit on the tip of a pen.

When the glass breaks in landfills, the mercury escapes, and, over time, leaches into topsoil and ground water, eventually winding up in streams, ponds and lakes. And long-term exposure to mercury poses severe health risks.

The National Electrical Manufacturers Association says that 200 million CFL bulbs were sold in 2007. And the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that double that number are being improperly landfilled each year. The responsible alternative is to seek out an appropriate disposal site or EPA-certified recycling center. And some retailers, including IKEA, have begun accepting spent CFLs. But disposal options are not meeting demand.

Online, the site Earth911.com can provide the addresses and contact information of the nearest recycling centers. Although many disposal sites are limited to area residents, some centers accept CFLs by mail.

Lanny Thompson, owner of Maintenance Solutions in Campbellsville, Kentucky, collects fluorescent bulbs from Kentucky-area residents and delivers them to an EPA-certified recycling facility. Unlike a transfer station or city dump, these facilities reuse every part of the CFL.

Thompson said he receives an average of 10 phone calls a day from Kentucky residents seeking disposal sites. Unlike fluorescent tubes, he says CFLs must be dismantled by hand.

Despite the mercury content, CFLs are much more environmentally friendly than incandescent lights because of the greater amounts of mercury emitted during coal burning, which powers more than half of the U.S. According to NEMA, incandescents still emit 150 percent more mercury overall.