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Do you recycle your old energy-saving light bulbs?

Recycling symbol and energy-saving bulb

Recycling old energy-saving light bulbs isn’t just the ‘green’ thing to do; it’s the safest option, too. But is this message getting across – or are energy-saving light bulbs still ending up in the bin?

The EU-led ban on old-style incandescent light bulbs in favour of energy-saving ones – and the loud debate around it – rumbles on. September 1 is the next date in the diary, when 60W traditional bulbs get the heave-ho.

But as more of us find ourselves using energy-savers, the switchover throws up another question entirely: how are you supposed to get rid of them?

Traditional bulbs weren’t easily recyclable, so the advice was to throw them in the bin when they got to their end-of-life.

Energy savers, on the other hand (and here I’m referring to compact fluorescent lamps or CFLs, the most commonly found type) not only can be recycled, but – crucially – need to be disposed of separately to the rest of your rubbish.

Safe light bulb disposal

CFLs contain mercury, albeit an amount small enough to fit on the tip of a ballpoint pen. But as a hazardous material, it can damage the environment if it ends up in landfill and needs to be disposed of carefully to reduce the risk of one smashing in your home.

So it’s worrying to hear that 80% of people questioned by light bulb recycling company Recolight were unaware that such bulbs needed to be recycled – with 69% stating they’d throw old CFLs away in the normal rubbish.

The results mirror a similar question that we asked to more than 1,000 people at the end of 2009. Then, 68% surveyed threw their last energy saving light bulb in the bin.

Where to recycle?

Light bulbs fall under the remit of the Waste Electronic Equipment, or Weee Directive. Shops are required to help customers recycle old bulbs for free, by offering an in-store takeback scheme or paying towards a recycling service.

But reaching a ‘local’ recycling centre can be easier said than done in some areas, if comments on previous light bulb-themed Conversations are anything to go by.

Rarrar told us he has a 35-mile round trip to his nearest recycling centre that accepts energy-saving light bulbs, with no public transport access. It’s a problem shared by Dave D, who said his light bulb-friendly recycling points are few and far between.

Shop and drop

To end on a more hopeful note, though, there are more convenient options cropping up.

Ikea has been offering light bulb recycling in its stores for a while (plus free coffee in return if you’re in Essex, apparently).

Recolight, which is funded by the lighting industry, now offers drop-off points at 240 larger Sainsbury’s stores, and 100 Robert Dyas shops. It’s also partnered with community group Cobra to roll out volunteer-managed recycling points in remote areas – the idea being to set up recycling points in post offices or village shops that the locals can take ownership of.

Have you come across any schemes like these, or do you still find it hard to dispose of your conked-out bulbs?


It would be useful if these lamps could be handed to refuse collectors or supermarkets provided a collection box. The problem is that some CFLs are so fragile that they are likely to be broken during collection and transport.

Correct disposal of fluorescent tubes is important because these also contain mercury.

It would also be helpful if local authorities facilitated the disposal of these lamps properly: in my area the bin men refuse to empty your wheelie bin if they even suspect that a cfl lamp is in there – and this can be seen as good because they are attempting to enforce correct disposal – but then the only way to dispose of them via council refuse services is to drive to one of just 3 “dumpit” sites for the whole city, all of which are a long way out of town and only one of which is readily accessible buy public transport, and then when you get there you have to queue with all the folk with lorries and trailers, etc., and when it finally is your turn there is a surcharge for taking any item of WEEE (currently £5 per visit).
This is naturally very counter-productive and so disposing of cfl’s in the proper way is incredibly hard to do, which is no doubt why so many cfls are seen in street-side waste bins or, more often and far worse, fly-tipped in parks and woodlands.
Advice from the council includes such suggestions as collecting all your cfl’s until you have enough to make the £5 fee “worth it” and “clubbing together” with friends to take them with other WEEE.
Most shops (the Co-Op being one I am most surprised at) refuse point blank to accept used cfl’s for recycling.

I’m afraid these issues over disposal are another reason why I wholly oppose the mandatory phasing out of old style lamps: it’s the typical beaurocratic c**k-up of not putting in place the required facilities before forcing a system upon us, and it results in a situation worse than the one we are trying to improve.

As far as I can see the only way round this would be change in the law to enforce all retailers of such lamps to have highly visible collection skips in all of their stores and also to force all local authorities to accept them with no surcharge; but I can’t see that happening anytime soon.

It is well known that CFLs contain a small amount of mercury, but I would like to know if there are other toxic materials in these lamps. The inside of the glass tube is coated with a white powder that is fluorescent, converting UV into visible light. Is this toxic or harmful to the environment?

I believe it’s still phosphor, like in fluorescent tubes.

They certainly are phosphors. In the early days of fluorescent tubes we had white and warm white tubes that each used single phosphors. Then triphosphor tubes were produced to produce a more natural light. A lot of effort has been made to make CFLs produce more light and colours that are more acceptable for use outside the kitchen. I’ve no idea whether modern phosphor mixtures are toxic, harmful to the environment, or valuable and worth recycling.

Living in West Sussex our council tips accept these so we take them up every so often (along with halogens etc). If most are like me and got these heavily subsidised from their electricity company I was thinking they should be compelled to accept them back?

I don’t use the wretched things (well, only hall/stairs/landing and outside lights – anything that tends to be on all evening) and have been pointing out to Which? for years the issues of mercury and recycling, along with many other disadvantages of CFLs, but all I get are defensive replies. It was so predictable that the majority of people wouldn’t recycle them. And, in the meantime, barometer makers have been banned by Europe from using mercury. How topsy-turvy is that? OK, there’s a lot more mercury in a barometer than a CFL, but how many barometers get made every year and how many old ones finish up in landfill? It’s all very silly.

Traditional mercury barometers contain a lot of mercury and are probably still hand-made. It is standard practice to switch to safer alternatives if these are available and suitable. Electronic barometers provide a good, accurate replacement for mercury barometers.

Mercury thermometers have suffered a similar fate. Alcohol thermometers and electronic thermometers are safer alternatives.

Sophie Gilbert says:
3 March 2011

You’ve got to make it easy for people to do things, or reward them. Shops that sell those bulbs should be legally made to collect them for recycling. And if they attract your custom by offering you a cup of coffee for it as well, all the better.

Mark Dykes says:
9 July 2011

Perhaps this is the most relevant conversation in which to ask whether people are getting the expected long life out of CFLs? Long life was one of the touted advantages, but I have seen several failures way before I expected.

Most of mine have generally lasted a very long time, but I have had two that failed prematurely. A friend had problems with short life of CFLs in one light fitting, but this was probably because the circuit had a dimmer.

TamalesG says:
17 December 2014

I emailed my local council, to ask how to dispose of old bulbs. I explained that I didn’t have a car, so the local recycling, and waste (tip) is out of bounds, as they don’t allow pedestrian access. I put in my email, that due to some of the things in light bulbs, I knew that they wouldn’t be able to but them in with the general rubbish, or recycling. Their reply was of great concern to me. They said that as I didn’t have a car, the tip was no good, they couldn’t be recycled, because they were made from metal, and glass (not one material), but the scary thing is, they told me to just throw them away with the rest of my general waste. All the energy saving bulbs, the most common, and LED ones contain various things that don’t want to get into the environment, not just Mercury (although that alone is reason enough to treat them with respect). It is worrying that the council have advised this. I wonder how many other councils are doing the same. It’s bad enough that some people don’t care enough to not throw them in the bin, but when someone has asked, and gets such ill informed information back, it is very worrying.

Hi Tamales, that’s a shame there isn’t easier access available to encourage recycling. Have you come across any stores that have light bulb recycling points?

greg says:
12 April 2015

Its crazy council refuse. sites wont let you take mord than 5-6 without wanting to charge you. I felt good going to my recycljng place in Oxford only the be confronted on suspicion they were commercial. Needless to say i ended up taking them home again!! Goodness knows how it happened but by magic they went elsewhere at cost to council to remove. Its no wonder people flytip.

My local Tesco takes energy saving light bulbs.

Both my local Tesco and the council recycling facility accept them.

I agree that easy recycling is needed to prevent incorrect disposal, but to accumulate five or six used lamps would take me as many years.

If stores sell items that have particular requirements for the disposal of them then they should be required to provide appropriate facilities for this purpose. There does seem to be a tendency to dictate specific and often complex, requirements for the disposal of some items, then make it difficult to achieve them.

Tesco and probably other large retailers manage to avoid their obligations to take back products for recycling by contributing to the cost of running council recycling facilities.

The final paragraph of this document mentions the Distributor Take Back scheme referred to by Malcolm: http://www.tescoplc.com/assets/files/cms/Resources/Environment/Recycling_in_the_UK.pdf

The WEEE regulations state (for retailers and distributors):

“You must provide a way for your customers to dispose of their old household electrical and electronic equipment when you sell them a new version of the same item.

The waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) regulations apply regardless of how you sell the products, whether direct or by internet, mail order or telephone.

You must either:
provide a free, in store, take back service to your customers
set up an alternative, free take back service

If you don’t have your own take back service, you must join the Distributor Takeback Scheme (DTS).

Robert Irvine says:
16 April 2015

I was disappointed yesterday to see my local council replace half a dozen non working lights in a communal walkway only to watch them throw both the tubes CFL and the fittings in our general waste bin. I mean if the council employee’s can’t be bothered to recycle what hope is there in convincing the public? Mind you councils are like politicians, in as much as they encourage Recycling etc. in public, but ask about fitting LED bulbs or starting a scheme to recycle…… there are excuses in the hundreds.

Mark Meyts says:
13 November 2016

Very useful, thank you for helping me to find a recycling place very quickly. 🙂

I think it is extremely bad to enforce the use of anything that needs to be disposed of safely without the right infrastructure being put in place.

Thank you to the people who have informed us of outlets that will recycle the bulbs.

Many lamps are marked with the symbol that shows that they should not be put in general waste, but it would be helpful if the packaging explained how used lamps should be disposed of.

“Recycling electrical goods is usually a straightforward process thanks to the variety of options available:

Take your item to your local recycling centre – you can easily locate your nearest centre on the Recycle Now website.
Under the terms of the WEEE directive, all retailers must provide a way for customers to dispose of their old household electrical and electronic equipment when they sell them a new version of the same item, either through a collection service or a store take-back scheme. Check with your retailer for details (some may apply charges for the collection service).
Some councils offer a household recycling collection service for small electrical items; contact your local authority for more details.”

We rarely, I suspect, take a failed lamp, or a small failed electrical item like a kettle or toaster, with us when we buy a new one. I expect most go in the bin. It would be sensible if councils provided a bag for such waste

There was a recent fanfare when Norwich City Council announced that they would collect any small electrical item(s) if presented alongside the recycling bin in a standard carrier bag. I have no idea how this is going but it seems like the best way of organising safe disposal or re-use if the article is still fit for purpose as many domestic items are when replaced.

It saddened me today when walking past a house that is having the kitchen refurbished to see modern appliances dumped outside and spoiled because they probably don’t suit the new design. Given the opportunity the British Heart Foundation would probably have taken them away, refettled them, and sold them at an affordable price to people who can’t afford new ones.

None of the larger shops I have asked will accept electrical goods, though I believe that some will remove white goods when installing new ones.

Larger Tesco stores may have a recycling box for energy saving lamps.

WEEE says retailers must provide a disposal service if they sell you like for like. Challenge them just as you would with CRA 🙂

I guess “disposal” means “scrapping” in most cases with little inclination to re-use. Some retailers say they work with the BHF on recycling replaced appliances. In my experience kitchen fitting companies don’t seem to consider themselves to be retailers and thus side-step their responsibilities.

Malcolm – Searching websites will often refer to the Distributor Take-Back Scheme, which allows retailers to waive their obligation to allow customers to return used electronic/electrical goods.

John – You are right about appliances being scrapped when kitchens are refurbished. I saw a collection of integrated appliances dumped on a neighbour’s drive alongside a large skip. They were out in the rain for several weeks, presumably waiting for a bulky items collection.

The DTS is an obligation placed on retailers that costs them money. Details of the options are on the above link.

MUST !! How often is MUST ever enforced anywhere in anything

From this link, the cost to the retailer of disposing each LED or CFL lamp or fluorescent tube is 0.069 pence, though the cost for a fridge or freezer is greater, at 0.12 pence. It seems a fairly worthless scheme and the real costs of running recycling centres are paid for by taxation.

Is there not some recovery of costs through the sale of recycled articles and materials like scrap metal, hardcore, timber, glass, textiles, paper and cardboard? The profits from the recycling of garden waste into compost also contribute. There is also the saving from reduced fly-tipping and dumped rubbish and a cleaner land-fill.

Before we had recycling centres all household waste either went straight to land-fill or was incinerated causing pollution, and the entire cost of waste collection and disposal fell on the local authority. Admittedly, we are now a much more throw-away society but the environmental standards are much higher these days.

I’m sure you are right, John, but let’s look at recycling of energy-saving bulbs. Traditional fluorescent tubes and CFLs use mercury, but the amounts are much smaller than in early tubes, where it was common to see balls of mercury rolling around inside them. The amount of mercury used in modern ones is the bare minimum and occasionally insufficient. Mercury is easy to recover in a recycling plant. Whether the rather toxic phosphor – now a mixture of chemicals to produce good quality light – is recovered, I do not know.

Old LED bulbs are definitely worth recycling, though I’ve seen manufacturers claim that they can be disposed of with general waste because they contain no mercury – conveniently forgetting other toxic metals. Other misinformation comes from pressure groups that are not keen on anything other than old fashioned light bulbs.

Just picked this site at random.
Only incandescent and halogen bulbs can be disposed of with your regular trash. This is because they do not contain any harmful chemicals or components that require special handling. Other bulbs, including LEDs and CFLs, must be disposed of properly.

The same page states: “DISPOSING OF LED BULBS
Most LEDs do not contain harmful substances like CFLs, so they can be disposed of like regular incandescent bulbs. Before you toss your used LEDs, make sure they are safe to throw away with your household rubbish – or better yet, recycle your used LEDs.”

That’s not very clear advice. It would be interesting to know if recycling centres do process used LED lamps or if they go into landfill.

I gave the link as an example of what is published. Here is another: http://ec.europa.eu/environment/integration/research/newsalert/pdf/229na2_en.pdf

Local authority recycling centres have a statutory duty to dispose of everything brought there safely and responsibly and this is enforced by the Environment Agency using the operating licence as the basis for control. If there is a receptacle for light bulbs and tubes, which would usually be the case, I would expect it to be handed over, under a transfer notice, to a recycling company that has the necessary authority to deal with them under controlled conditions, recover what is practical, and dispose of the remains in an environmentally satisfactory manner. I have no idea whether the council operating the recycling centre receives any payment or has to pay for the disposal.

Most fluorescent or LED tubes are in commercial or industrial premises and are replaced in a batch operation according to a schedule. It is easier to arrange for proper disposal of such large numbers of units rather than as-&-when replacements which unfortunately tend to end up in the waste skips – although the waste disposal companies should be looking out for that and not accepting such mixed waste. Households disposing of the odd CFL or LED lamp should see if their main supermarket has a receptacle for them. Not everyone can get to a recycling centre and there is a temptation to put them in the general refuse.

I read something recently on the production of batteries relating to the future of electric vehicles.

The mining, manufacturing and disposal with multiple global transportation at any/each stage plus generating the power for every stage of production, could outweigh the benefit of cleaner air for the environment of the end-user who also avoids the health risks associated with production and disposal.

LEDs and batteries need a vastly extended life-span if they are to be a genuine benefit to our planet.

The problem with LED bulbs that are direct replacement of filament lamps is that the control electronics can be overheated by the LEDs. The answer is to separate the LEDs and electronics, which is common on non-domestic light fixtures. It’s also necessary not to overdrive the LEDs to produce as much light as possible, but that is easy when not restricted to the size of a bulb.

There will still be the problem of fixtures being replaced because they are dated rather than because they have stopped working.

I certainly agree that the limited life of batteries is a concern. Hopefully all EV batteries will be properly recycled.

From the second link provided by Malcolm: “Overall, the white LED, as used in lighting, appeared the least harmful because it contained less copper and did not contain arsenic or lead.” That’s encouraging and agrees with what I have read in New Scientist and elsewhere.

What you really want to read is that all collection, dismantling and reuse is all done in the UK.

It looks like the company organises collections that are then shipped to China.

So you have stuff that could go around the world several times in one life-cycle.

Anything that still is working I try to recycle BHF will collect large items of all kinds some smaller ones you can take to their stores or you find some local charities will take some electrical items Anything not working I take to the local recycling centre (which is quite close ) or dismantle to find out how they work and keep things that I could make use of for something else but if no use is found after a short time dispose of them safely

We had quite a large sideboard that was in as good as new condition although rather dated.

I tried charities and second-hand shops but nobody wanted it.

I did get a certain satisfaction watching it go up in smoke though. It came free with my husband and I never liked the thing.

KayBee57 says:
19 June 2019

Rather late to the party but you can post freebies on Gumtree for items that have no resale value that charity shops won’t take and someone usually turns up within a couple of hours. I’ve posted things like cardboard boxes, laminate flooring still in situ, ancient sofa, bed, kitchen cabinets, all have been taken away by someone who is glad to have them.

There seems to be little differentiation between low energy bulbs which have stopped working (these can be taken to Robert Dyas, for example) and those which have broken glass, such as can easily happen with the spiral ones, or the “stick” ones (where only one stick can be broken). Does anyone know the procedure for actual broken ones ?

This may be old advice but it seems good to me: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7172662.stm