Lets Talk Trash
A Frisco resident recently came to me with a predicament about the new CFL bulbs. She bought them in an effort to save energy, but noticed a mercury warning on the package prompting her to wonder if they could be thrown out in the trash.In short, the answer is no. Compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs should not be thrown in the trash because of the residual mercury gas in them. Instead, they can safely be handled through the Summit County Household Hazardous Waste Program for free!Before we get into the details of disposal, lets explore the CFL bulb as a conservation tool. Compact fluorescent (CFL) bulbs are one of the simplest, most affordable and effective tools available for saving energy in homes and businesses. Less energy use means less pollution. Replacing six interior incandescent bulbs with CFL bulbs can keep 565 pounds of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere over the life of the bulbs.CFL bulbs use less energy than their incandescent equivalents because of the way they produce light. An incandescent bulb uses heat to create light, by heating a filament inside the bulb that glows white hot and emits the light you see. Fluorescent lights use electricity to excite the gas contained in the bulb, which produces ultraviolet light that glows through the white-coated bulb to emit the light you see. On average, a CFL bulb uses 66 percent less energy than an incandescent bulb. For example, a 60-watt incandescent bulb can be replaced with a CFL bulb that uses only 13 watts, but the light output (or lumens) is the same. Additionally, CFL bulbs have improved greatly over the last few years, reducing flicker and warm-up time and emitting soft white light comparable to incandescent bulbs. They are not your traditional fluorescent tubes that hum and flicker, emitting a bluish color of light.CFL bulbs made for home use now come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and wattages. They have also come down in price and are increasingly available in local stores. Almost all light bulb sections now have a wide array of CFL bulbs to choose from.CFL bulbs do have a higher up-front cost, of about $5 instead of $2, but they can save you about $30 in energy costs over the life of the bulb. Additionally, they last much longer than incandescent bulbs. With average use, most CFL bulbs will last at least five years.All in all, CFL bulbs are an important way to conserve energy. But, there are trace amounts of mercury in all fluorescent bulbs (about 10-40 milligrams). Even with this low amount, they should not be thrown in the trash when their useful life is over. Mercury is a potent neurotoxin that can pose serious human and environmental health problems when it is released into air, water and soil. Tossing fluorescent bulbs in the trash will release the mercury gas into the atmosphere when the bulbs are broken. Once mercury is released in the environment, it persists indefinitely. Airborne mercury can attach to water droplets and subsequently enter waterways. Mercury then builds up in fish and animals (including humans) that eat fish. By properly disposing of fluorescent bulbs, and other mercury containing devices, you can reduce the amount of mercury in our environment.In Summit County, you can safely dispose of mercury-containing devices, like fluorescent bulbs, through the Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) Program. The HHW Program operates every Wednesday from 8 a.m. to noon at the Summit County landfill. CFL bulbs, mercury thermometers and switches are free to dispose of. Long fluorescent tubes are 50 cents each to dispose of.The bulbs are run through a machine that crushes them and isolates the mercury gas through a vacuum and filtration process. The isolated mercury can then be recycled into new products, reducing the need for mining new stores of mercury from the earth. CFL bulbs are an important way to conserve energy and reduce pollution, even with their special disposal requirements. Fortunately, CFL bulbs last a long time so you wont have to make many trips to the HHW facility at the Summit County landfill with your spent bulbs.Carly Wier is the executive director of High Country Conservation Center, a non-profit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to waste reduction and resource conservation. Lets Talk Trash is a weekly column dedicated to exploring local waste and conservation issues. Submit questions to firstname.lastname@example.org with Trash Talk as the subject or by snail mail to High Country Conservation Center, PO Box 4506, Frisco, CO 80443.
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