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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 bu