Many in the Dark About Handling Dead Fluorescents

March 11, 2011
The EPA estimates that approximately 75 to 80 percent of fluorescent lamps are not recycled and are usually placed in dumpsters or trash containers, presenting a considerable risk. How you replace dead fluorescent bulbs is a matter of environmental and business sustainability.

Most companies want their workplaces to be both safe and energy efficient. Lighting provides an easy way to promote both. Fluorescent lighting in particular has long been recognized for its energy saving benefits. These lamps give off the same amount of light as traditional incandescent bulbs, but they require considerably less electricity. This is one way to reduce environmental damage. But they also provide significantly longer working lives, which reduces costly bulb replacement.

One problem, though. Fluorescent lamps contain mercury, and if broken, emit hazardous mercury vapor. If appropriate precautions aren’t taken, mercury vapor can create health and safety issues for people who store, pack and ship used lamps. One broken four-foot fluorescent lamp in a small room can release enough mercury vapor to exceed the OSHA mercury exposure eight-hour limit—posing a significant occupational health risk. Plus, mercury vapor can be emitted for weeks after a single bulb is broken.

Manufacturers, transporters, distributors, retailers, consumers and installers, as well as recycling or waste handlers handle fragile fluorescent lamps every day. Companies can make a substantial, sustainable contribution to their supply chains and to their communities by recycling used fluorescent lamps at a facility where the mercury can be safely extracted for eventual reuse. However, mercury lamps are fragile and, inevitably, some break during storage and transportation to these facilities. This negates the environmental benefits of recycling and exposes workers to unhealthy levels of mercury vapor. Used lamps should be stored and transported in packages designed to effectively contain mercury vapor.

Choosing the Right Package

Many companies reuse the original manufacturer’s package to store used lamps and transport them for disposal or recycling. However, a recent study conducted at the University of Minnesota's School of Public Health, published in the March 2009 issue of the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, indicates that most containers used for storage and transportation of used fluorescent lamps to recycling centers do not sufficiently prevent the release of mercury vapor from broken lamps. 1

The study measured the performance of five different packages in three categories of commercially available containers for storage and transport of used fluorescent lamps. The first configuration consisted of a single cardboard box, which is similar to the packaging that new fluorescent lamps are sold in. The second category included single boxes paired with a plastic bag —with one box from this group featuring an unsealed, thin plastic liner and the other a tape-sealed plastic bag. The third group of boxes consisted of a double-box design with a bag positioned between the two cardboard layers. One of these double-box designs used a thicker, tape-sealed plastic bag, and the second featured a foil-plastic laminate bag with a zip closure.

Measuring the level of mercury vapor emitted from broken fluorescent lamps in these packages, researchers found the only package to effectively contain mercury vapor levels below all current federal and state workplace exposure regulations and guidelines was the double box with the foil-plastic laminate bag. The test indicates that each of the three layers performs a specific function. The first cardboard layer provides structure to the configuration, protecting contents from outside elements. The inner layer of cardboard prevents glass shards from puncturing the bag, which actually contains the mercury vapor.

Recycle to Protect the Environment

When mercury-containing products are carelessly handled or improperly disposed of, mercury can get into drinking water, lakes, rivers and streams, posing a critical threat to human health, as well as the environment. Industries can make a significant sustainable contribution to the environment by recycling used fluorescent lamps using effective packaging.


1. Glenz, Tracy T., Lisa M. Brosseau and Richard W. Hoffbeck. “Preventing Mercury Vapor Release from Broken Fluorescent Lamps during Shipping.” Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association, 59 (2009), 266-72. Brad Buscheris Chairman and CEO of VaporLok Products LLC.