Fluorescent tubes, or fluorescent lamps, are low-pressure gas-discharge lamps that use fluorescence to produce visible light. They are different from compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFL), which have commonly available recycling programs.
Yes, you can recycle fluorescent tubes. But you need to go about it responsibly.
Why You Need to Recycle Fluorescent Tubes
Fluorescent tubes contain mercury, a hazardous material (as well as aluminum and glass). Mercury is not only harmful, but also recyclable (and some jurisdictions require recycling of aluminum and glass as well). Recycling thus prevents the release of mercury into the environment. (What to do if you broke a mercury-containing light?)
Some counties do not allow lamps containing mercury in their landfills. In fact, seven US states have completely banned lamps containing mercury from landfills.
Where to Recycle Fluorescent Tubes
Check with waste collection agencies, local retailers, and mailback services for the best place to recycle fluorescent tubes. Use this Recycling Locator to find a place near you. Your local waste collection agency may ask for a small fee to recycle fluorescent tubes, and they may collect only periodically (once or twice a year). Once you find out the details, you can plan accordingly.
Can you recycle fluorescent tubes in your curbside recycling program?
No. The Environmental Protection Agency recommends that fluorescent lamps be segregated from general waste for recycling or safe disposal. Fluorescent tubes fall under the Household Hazardous Waste (HHW) category, so they cannot be dropped into the recycling bin. You will have to recycle HHW materials according to the rules laid out by your local authorities and the US EPA. Sometimes, communities collect HHW materials during a dedicated event, and then send it off in bulk to the collection facility. Check if your neighbors do that.
The EPA has recommendations for how businesses can manage used fluorescent tubes.
Where can I recycle CFLs?
Retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe’s recycle CFL bulbs brought in by consumers. The recycling of CFL bulbs isn’t as complicated, since it’s more compact and thus easier to ship. So find out from your nearest CFL retailer about recycling your used CFL lights.
Important: Do not drop off your fluorescent tubes into the CFL collection bins at these stores. The tubes will likely break and contaminate the store.
How are Fluorescent Tubes Recycled?
The recycler will separate the mercury from the aluminum and glass. They use special machines to extract the mercury, and then break down the aluminum caps and glass casing.
The extracted mercury will be reused in new bulbs and thermostats. The aluminum is now scrap metal, to be used in new products. The glass can be recycled into a variety of items.
How to Prepare Fluorescent Tubes for Recycling
Before you hand over your fluorescent tubes to the approved recycler, you will need to make sure the tube doesn’t break (broken fluorescent tubes have no value and cannot be recycled). Pack the tubes in bubble wrap or crushed newspaper cushioning so that it stays safe and unbroken until you drop it off at the recycling center. Then it’s their problem!
What are the Alternatives to Fluorescent Tubes?
Look for energy-efficient lighting. The best alternative to a fluorescent tube is an LED tube. LED tubes will fit into your fluorescent tube fixture perfectly. Importantly, LED tubes do not contain mercury, last much longer (up to 50,000 hours in total), and are 30% more efficient.
So, the next time you need to replace your fluorescent tube, buy an LED tube light.
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