Fluorescent Lamp Recycling: Small amounts of mercury, big hazard

Published May 2013



It is easy to take for granted the everyday decisions and products we use that can make a big environmental impact if mistreated or handled thoughtlessly. Did you know that even fluorescent lamps can be classified as hazardous waste based on how much mercury they contain? The EPA has developed the Toxicity Characteristic Leaching Procedure (TCLP) to test if a lamp is considered to be hazardous. Lamps that contain less than 0.2 milligrams per liter of mercury are not considered hazardous and federal disposal regulations do not apply. But this does not exempt the generator from any state or local regulations.

Lamps that pass the TCLP test are not very common. Most fluorescent lamps, including the low-mercury lamps identified by green tips, would not pass the TCLP test because they still contain enough mercury to be considered significant. The standard fluorescent lamp contains anywhere from 8 to 14 milligrams of mercury. A so called low-mercury lamp contains 3.5 to 4 milligrams of mercury. Unless you have your lamps tested it is safe to assume that all lamps contain a significant amount of mercury and should be treated as a hazardous waste. It is easy to dismiss such a small amount of hazardous material in lamps, but the importance is to understand the wider effect of such a prevalent waste if handled improperly.


Fluorescent lamps are a great example of both of these issues. Fluorescent lamps have always contained mercury and it is as important to recycle used lamps as it is to choose lower-mercury lamps when purchasing new products. As we learned about the hazards of large amounts of mercury, manufacturers adapted and began reducing the amount of mercury in fluorescents. Some lamps are even advertised as low mercury lamps by their green tips or the language on their packaging. In some circumstances, where very stringent legislation does not exist, these “low mercury” lamps may be handled as ordinary waste. However, it is important to know that as a waste generator you will always be responsible for properly disposing or recycling your regulated wastes. Still, fluorescent lamps contain mercury and therefore need to be disposed of in a safe and responsible manner. Modern recycling methods for fluorescent lamps and mercury containing items are reliable and help reduce the effect of mercury on the environment. What is the importance of fluorescent lamp recycling? Conscious consumers are always trying to become more aware of their impact on the environment. This is especially important when it comes to choices in the products we use in daily life because small choices do have a cumulative effect. We don’t often give much time to think about the waste created by these ‘necessary products,’ such as a light bulb, or the environmental impact made as they are being used. We were not always aware of the seemingly passive use of hazardous materials in these simple and necessary products. Asbestos, CFCs, and lead are some common examples of products we used to use passively on a daily basis. As we uncovered the dangers of these materials, we discovered safer alternatives. While replacing these harmful substances is always a priority, responsible disposal of the older hazardous products is just as important.


Many states have required recycling of all fluorescent lamps. While it is not yet a nationwide law, the EPA recommends that all types of fluorescent lamps be disposed of as if they are a hazardous waste. The amount of mercury in these lamps is enough to have an impact on the environment because mercury can accumulate and become concentrated in organisms near the bottom on the food chain, eventually working its way into larger organisms through a process called biomagnifcation. All this to say, your small choices have a bigger impact and that making smart choices about commonly used products, even those we use passively, can have a lasting positive result.

It is important to be responsible when it comes to disposing of any harmful materials. So, please be sure to consult a Universal Waste professional or your local regulating authority such as DNR or EPA for advice on proper waste handling and disposal or recycling.