Where do CFLs go?

Installing an energy-saving modern spiral light bulb in a chandelier suspended from the ceiling, energy saving, hand, close-up, equipment January 24, 2020
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Throughout this past summer and fall, DEP’s Residential Energy Program Manager, Larissa Johnson, has been collecting old incandescent and compact florescent (CFL) light bulbs to ensure that Montgomery County residents have the most energy efficient bulbs on the market.


Types of Bulbs

CFLs come in different shapes


LEDs? But I just switched to CFLs!

It may seem like you just switched to CFLs, but the spiral CFL was invented in 1976 in response to the 1973 Oil Crisis. It has been used in large numbers since the early 1990s.

Compared to incandescent bulbs giving the same amount of visible light, CFLs use 1/5 to 1/3 the electric power, and they last eight to fifteen times longer. CFLs typically have a rated service life of 6,000–15,000 hours, whereas incandescent bulbs have a service life of 750 or 1,000 hours.

The life of a CFL is significantly shorter if it is turned on and off frequently and they get dimmer over their lifetime. In fact, one test by the U.S. Department of Energy of Energy Star products showed one quarter of tested CFLs no longer met their rated output after 40% of their service life.

We, here at DEP, like to think of CFLs as the cassette tape of lighting. They had their place in history, our lives were a lot easier for a while, but there is a new technology on the scene. Just like CDs took the place of cassettes and then iPods, LEDs are the new bulb to purchase.

LEDs may cost more up front, but they emit very little heat, last longer, and do not need diffusers or reflectors that trap lights. Check out the chart to see the difference.

History of Bulbs

Chart showing the difference between different types of lighting

How to get rid of CFLs

You have two options;

  1. You can swap out your old bulbs at a DEP Sponsored event, find out when the next one is schedule by checking our calendar
  2. You can drop them off at one of these County Drop-off Locations

CFL recycling bin at a Lowe’s location

What happens to CFL bulbs?

Once you have made the decision to switch to LEDs from CFLs, it is important to understand what happens when you dispose of them. Since they all contain mercury, they are considered a hazardous waste.

As a hazardous waste, they should be brought to the County’s Transfer Station where they are handled with care. An employee from the Transfer Station will put them into a large blue tube where they are then sent to a recycler in Ohio.

Most CFLs contain 3–5 mg per bulb, with the bulbs labeled “eco-friendly” containing as little as 1 mg.  Because mercury is poisonous, even these small amounts are a concern for landfills and waste incinerators where the mercury from lamps may be released and contribute to air and water pollution. In addition to mercury, there is also argon and a small electronic ballast, so they can NOT be recycled in your trash or recycle bin as they will contaminate everything.


Jerome works at the Transfer Station and is happy to collect your old bulbs


Once the bulbs are collected at the recycler in Ohio, they are put on a conveyer belt where they are crushed. During this process, a hood located on top of the belt draws in the mercury vapor.

As the glass continues down the belt it is shaken to remove as much of the phosphor coating as possible. At the end of the belt a magnet is used to recover as much of the metal (from the ballast at the base of the bulb) as possible.

In the end, the mercury vapor is recovered, processed and sent out to be re-used. The carbon filter (located inside the hood) is taken out and properly disposed of according to EPA standards. The phosphor coating, glass, and metal are all recyclable materials that are sold for reuse.


Interested in a tour of the Montgomery County Recycling Center? Click here

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