What to do with CFL light bulbs?

CFL (compact flourescent lamp) light bulbs are significantly more energy-efficient than normal incandescent bulbs (using 75% less energy and lasting 10 times longer), but they cannot be treated and disposed of the same way. You can read a more detailed analysis on using CFL’s on the Human Guinea Pig Blog.

CFL’s do contain a small amount of mercury, the amount of mercury has decreased since they were first developed and overall the amount is much less than the mercury used in old thermometers.  Energy Star includes a thorough overview here.  According to this article, using CFL’s uses less mercury than normal light bulbs because of how much more energy is needed from the power plant (I did not realize mercury is part of the process of producing electricity).

Old truths about CFL’s that are no longer true:

  • Older CFL’s would flicker as they warmed up, new products do not
  • Older CFL’s had poor light quality, newer versions now product a spectrum of light similar to soft incandescent bulbs
  • Old CFL’s did not work with dimming fixtures, now some do
  • Cheap CFL’s do not last very long.  It is a challenge with all products to know which ones provide quality and value and which do not.

The key thing to know about CFL’s is that they must be disposed of properly, and the Energy Star article recommends specific clean-up instructions.  Look-up locations to recycle CFL bulbs at epa.gov/cfl/cflrecycling.html or www.earth911.org.


The most important steps to reduce exposure to mercury vapor from a broken bulb are:

Before cleanup

  1. Have people and pets leave the room.
  2. Air out the room for 5-10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.
  3. Shut off the central forced air heating/air conditioning (H&AC) system, if you have one.
  4. Collect materials needed to clean up broken bulb.

During cleanup

  1. Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder.
  2. Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.

3. After cleanup

  1. Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of properly. Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.
  2. For several hours, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the H&AC system shut off.

One comment on “What to do with CFL light bulbs?

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