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Incandescent Light Bulbs vs. Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs)
Incandescents are your old school light bulbs: powered by electricity running through a filament, they die when the filament wears out or breaks and can no longer transmit the electricity.
Compact fluorescents, or CFLs, are the newer, long-lasting light bulbs. Use your old incandescents until they burn out, or replace them with CFLs sooner to enjoy CFLs' energy-saving properties. CFLs use 75% less energy than incandescents and last up to ten times longer. In recent years, advances in CFL technology have made them available in a variety of warmth and coolness so that the light they shine is virtually indistinguishable from incandescents.
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The Mercury Issue
CFLs are manufactured with about 5 mg of mercury, which pushes them into the hazardous waste category. Most states and municipalities don't require consumers to handle CFLs as hazardous waste, but it's still a good idea to recycle them to recover the mercury and keep it from entering landfills or the environment.
Fun fact: incandescents actually release more mercury than CFLs, when electricity generation is taken into effect. The burning of fossil fuels, which generates most electricity, emits mercury, and because incandescents consume so much more electricity over their lifetime than CFLs do, they actually release 4 times more mercury than standard CFLs do. In fact, the best alternative is actually LEDs over any other.
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Where Do I Recycle Incandescent Light Bulbs?
In some parts of the country, incandescent bulbs can be recycled or turned in to your local Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) collection program. Hazardous waste is detrimental to our environment and collection programs serve to dispose of them properly. Contact your local recycling program or HHW to check if they accept incandescents. If your area doesn't accept incandescents in recycling, it's all right, and perfectly legal, to dispose of them in the trash.
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Where Do I Recycle Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs (CFLs)?
One of the benefits of CFL technology is that the bulbs can be recycled. There are three options when considering how to recycle them.
Home Depot takes back compact fluorescents at all of its 1,973 stores in the United States. Frankly, this is probably your very best option, as Home Depots are everywhere.
Ikea also accepts compact fluorescents to recycle at all of its locations.
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2. Your local Household Hazardous Waste collection site
Old compact fluorescents fall under the government's Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) category. (Other HHWs include used motor oil, paint, pesticides, and solvents.) Your community may have a facility that collects HHW year-round, or you may see special collection days advertised in the local newspaper. Contact your local municipality or trash collector to find out when they accept household hazardous waste like CFLs.
3. Mail-in programs
With mail-in programs, a company or organization sends you a box, for a fee, that holds several CFLs, which you then fill and mail back to them. The company or organization then recycles the CFLs. This is in some ways the least attractive option, because it can be pricey.
Sylvania offers several recycling kits. Their consumer CFL kit costs $16.95 and holds 12 small compact fluorescents, so you're paying a little over a dollar apiece to recycle them. On the bright side, shipping is prepaid.
Think Green From Home, sponsored by the mega-garbage pickup company Waste Management, offers a similar deal. For $16.95 you get a prepaid shipping box that holds 13 compact fluorescents.
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How Can I Find a CFL Drop-Off In My Area?
To find a site that accepts CFLs for recycling in your area, try Recycleabulb.com. Recycleabulb.com is a nationwide search, allowing you to look for recycling drop-offs by ZIP code and mile radius.
The EPA also offers an interactive map that lists CFL recycling centers. Try it in a pinch, but it's much less comprehensive than Recycleabulb.com.
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Given the wide range of options, the question "Where do I recycle light bulbs?" need never pop into your head again. Hopefully in the future more retailers will jump on the CFL recycling bandwagon, but with Home Depot, Ikea, HHW collection sites, and mail-in recycling programs, at least some of the bases are covered.