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What (not) to do when you break a CFL bulb

I broke a new lightbulb the other day while trying to replace my old, burned-out bulbs. Normally, I would have swept it up and tossed it in the trash (perhaps first putting in the shards in a paper bag, if I were being extra careful). But this was a compact fluorescent bulb, or CFL, and I had some vague idea that however energy efficient, CFL’s contain mercury, so you can’t just toss them out.

Mercury content will obviously vary according to the type of bulb you have, but according to wikipedia, most bulbs contain 3-5mg of mercury. This may seem counterintuitive- CFL bulbs are supposed to be good for the environment, right?- but as coal combustion also releases mercury, the hope is that by using less electricity, CFL bulbs can help reduce emissions from coal plants.

So I knew I shouldn’t eat the bulb, and that I probably didn’t want that mercury getting back into my water supply via landfills. What to do? I went to the internet. Chicago has an official website on the matter which confirmed my suspicions: CFL bulbs need to be recycled at an appropriate facility.

Where are appropriate facilities? The official household chemicals and computer recycling facility is located at 1150 N. Branch St., near Division Street on Goose Island, but I live on the other side of town. Ikea, Ace Hardware, Home Depot, and True Value Hardware stores at participating locations will recycle the bulbs. Comed keeps a list of participating recyclers here, you can download it and then search for your zipcode.

More importantly, I learned that I shouldn’t have cleaned up the lightbulb right away. According to the City, I should have turned off my heat and aired out the room for at least 5 or 10 minutes before even picking up the pieces. And my paper bag is probably insufficient- they recommend putting all pieces in a sealable container.

The worst part, for this time of year- I should have turned off my heat and aired the room out for several hours. Last but not least, the container with the broken pieces should have been kept outdoors until I get the chance to dispose of it safely.

Next time, I’ll be more careful.

EPA instructions for when you break a CFL bulb
GE FAQ’s on CFL bulbs
More on CFL bulbs (Wikipedia)

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