How CFL Bulbs Work

Recycling CFL Bulbs

IKEA and Home Depot both provide free disposal and recycling of used CFL bulbs.
IKEA and Home Depot both provide free disposal and recycling of used CFL bulbs.
© BlackJack3D

So what do you do with a burned-out CFL bulb if it contains mercury? First, you should realize that compact fluorescent bulbs are considered hazardous household items, a category that also includes paint, batteries and thermostats. You must dispose of such items properly, which means you can't simply throw them away in household garbage.

To find out your options, start by calling your local waste management authority. You can also call 1-800-CLEANUP, a service provided by Earth911 that allows anyone with telephone access to search the organization's database of 100,000 recycling and hazardous waste collection locations for more than 170 different materials. You can search the same database online at

More and more retailers are stepping up to help with CFL bulb recycling. IKEA was the first retailer to provide free disposal and recycling of used CFLs. The Home Depot joined IKEA in 2008 by launching a national in-store consumer CFL bulb-recycling program in all of its nearly 2,000 locations. Some Ace and True Value stores are offering similar programs.

As recycling becomes easier, the CFL revolution will only gain momentum. Many think that the spiral-shaped bulbs will be a brief evolutionary step toward the even more efficient light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs. A 1.3-watt LED bulb uses less electricity than a 9-watt CFL and can last for up to 11 years [source: Peterson]. Better yet, it doesn't contain an atom of mercury.

But even LED bulbs have their tradeoffs. They're not very bright, and they're exorbitantly expensive. Until manufacturers overcome those two issues, CFL bulbs will likely have the spotlight all to themselves.

Related HowStuffWorks Articles


  • Consumer Reports. Compact fluorescent light bulbs: "Don't fall for these common myths about these long-lasting, energy-saving lights." Oct. 2008. (June 23, 2009)
  • ENERGY STAR. "Learn About CFLs." (June 23, 2009)
  • Fishman, Charles. How Many Light Bulbs Does it Take to Change the World? One. And You're Looking At It. Fast Company. Dec. 19, 2007. (June 23, 2009)
  • GE Consumer and Industrial Lighting. "Compact Fluorescent Bulb FAQs." (June 23, 2009)
  • Johnson, Alex. "Shining a light on fluorescent bulbs." MSNBC. April 7, 2008. (June 23, 2009)
  • Masamitsu, Emily. "The Best Compact Fluorescent Light Bulbs: PM Lab Test." Popular Mechanics. May 2007. (June 23, 2009)
  • Matson, John. "Are Compact Fluorescent Light bulbs Dangerous?" April 10, 2008. (June 23, 2009)
  • Peterson, Josh. "Are You Ready for LED Light Bulbs?" Planet Green. April 22, 2009. (June 23, 2009)