Have you ever thought if you can recycle your light bulbs? What do you usually do with your bulbs once they go out?
According to a 2019 report, a whopping 72% of the world’s electronic waste (also known as e-waste) doesn’t get recycled and ends up in the landfill instead.
This includes computers, appliances, TV screens, smartphones, and in some cases, even our lightbulbs.
E-waste is the fastest-growing waste stream when it comes to both commercial and domestic waste, with over 23kg of electronic waste per person produced in the UK alone. Without doubt, e-waste is going to become the new ‘plastic’ in terms of environmental problems unless it’s recycled properly.
So why is recycling electrical items like light bulbs so challenging? And what can we do to dispose of them in the most sustainable way?
What are light bulbs made of?
Not all light bulbs are created equal. While the core mechanism might be the same for all types of light bulbs available on the market, recycling options are going to be vastly different.
The basic structure of a traditional light bulb consists of two metal contacts that connect to the electrical circuit, two wires, a very thin metal filament (usually tungsten which is hard to melt) and a glass enclosure filled with inert gas to keep the filament from disintegrating.
There are three main types of light bulbs:
1. Incandescent light bulbs
The structure outlined above, is the exact structure found in incandescent light bulbs. We often think of these as traditional light bulbs.
As the name indicates, they work by incandescence. This is where light is emitted as the tungsten filament heats up through electricity, while the inert gas stored in the chamber, or the vacuum, keeps the filament from evaporating.
2. LED light bulbs
LED light bulbs, on the other hand, use microchip technology and small diodes (light conductors), instead of a filament, to emit light.
They use a combination of aluminium-gallium-arsenide as a conductor and are usually considered a more eco-friendly option. This is chiefly because they require 75% less energy to work than incandescent light bulbs.
3. Compact fluorescent light bulbs
Finally, compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) are made of glass, ceramic, and metal, relying on small amounts of mercury, phosphor and gas tubes to produce light.
They also require around 70% to 80% less energy and last much longer than incandescent light bulbs, making for a more environmentally friendly option — at least when it comes to energy-saving!
Why is recycling light bulbs so challenging?
Disposing of light bulbs properly can be quite challenging as there is a lot of misinformation and confusion around what type of waste they classify as.
LED bulbs and fluorescent light bulbs are generally considered e-waste, and they can only be disposed of safely by being sent over to specialised electronic waste collection facilities.
This is because both contain materials that are harmful to the environment – namely mercury, phosphor and lead – mixed in with other materials.
Incandescent light bulbs, on the other hand, don’t contain toxic or harmful substances. But they definitely come with their own environmental drawbacks.
Traditional light bulbs consume around 80% more energy compared to their LED and fluorescent counterparts. This is one of the main reasons why they’re slowly being phased out in the UK and EU.
The glass chamber of an incandescent light bulb is also not fit for curbside glass recycling, as separating the glass from the many wires and conductors is quite challenging.
So, it’s really no wonder why so many households end up disposing of their light bulbs in their general waste bin!
So, how can you recycle light bulbs in the UK?
But is there any way you can recycle light bulbs at all in the UK?
While incandescent light bulbs and the now-banned halogen light bulbs can’t be recycled in any way, light bulbs that are classified as e-waste can be recycled by specialised facilities.
Here’s how to recycle light bulbs according to what type of product you’re dealing with:
How to recycle fluorescent light bulbs
As electrical goods, fluorescent light bulbs should not be disposed of in your rubbish bin. Any breakages of these bulbs can cause mercury and phosphor to leak out which can cause harm to both our waterways and waste collection workers.
Not all councils will accept CFLs for curbside pick-up, and in many cases, you will have to bring any expired light bulb to your local recycling facility.
But what happens if you have a broken light bulb on your hands?
The best course of action will be to collect all the pieces in the safest manner, put them in a sealed container and take them to a recycling point.
How to recycle LED light bulbs
While not as toxic as fluorescent light bulbs and considered much safer to handle, you should also avoid throwing your LEDs in the rubbish bin. The majority of their components (specifically glass and metals) can be recycled instead!
Still, many households do dispose of their LED light bulbs by throwing them in the rubbish bin, as they are not technically considered hazardous materials.
This is because different manufacturers categorise their products differently. For this reason you might also encounter LEDs that can be disposed of with the rest of your unrecyclables — though it’s definitely not the best choice for the planet.
The best course of action will be to check the packaging. A crossed wheelie symbol means that they should not be put in the rubbish bin under any circumstance due to the risk of toxic leakages.
It goes without saying, however, that you should always strive for recycling your LEDs!
To recycle these eco-friendly light bulbs, you can head over to your local e-waste recycling centre or even selected electronics stores like Curry’s PC World.
Keep in mind that, depending on your location, you might have to plan ahead to find a suitable recycling facility, so make sure to do your research beforehand on websites like Recycle Now.
What is the most eco-friendly light bulb for your home?
But just because you can recycle lightbulbs, or at least most of them, doesn’t mean that they make for a sustainable choice.
Incandescent light bulbs are slowly being phased out in favour of LEDs, as they cannot be recycled, consume large amounts of energy, and tend to not last nearly as long as fluorescent and LED light bulbs.
Even CFLs are next on the list of light bulbs to be banned in the UK, following toxicology concerns.
LEDs will soon become the default in all households as we move towards a more energy-efficient and sustainable future, so we can only hope that recycling options will become more accessible over time!
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