We're now out of the compact fluorescent era, fortunately, but we wound up with 3 or 4 broken CF bulbs from somebody not being careful with a box of them in the garage ...

We're moving and I want to handle this stuff responsibly but I don't have $3000 for official remediation. So should I:

  • Wrap the current recycling bin where the broken CFs are stored with packing tape and make sure it's sealed and not leaking, put a sign on it DANGER, MERCURY and move it to the new garage and just sequester it that way?
  • Put on gloves and a filter mask and sweep the bits into a plastic bag that's then put into 2 more layers of plastic and saved in a coffee can and sent to the landfill that way?
  • something else?

Any suggestions are welcome; I'm very happy to be into the LED ERA!

  • 12
    Where did you get the $3000 number? Jan 7, 2018 at 17:18
  • 4
    Note that CFLs contain only a few milligrams of mercury. That means that you'd have to break about a thousand of them to collect mercury with the weight of a single sheet of standard A4/letter printer paper. Jan 7, 2018 at 19:13
  • 5
    @Mark did a remediation company actually quote you that? i guess if you shout loud enough "somebody take my money", someone will... Jan 7, 2018 at 21:03
  • 2
    @AndrewMorton this is the first I've read about the anti-clotting effect of phosphors, and I can't find an independent source. Do you know of one? Jan 8, 2018 at 2:26
  • 6
    Just throw out any debris large enough to be visible, forget it happened, and move on. If $3000 worth of legitimate environmental badness happened every time a CFL broke, you would not be legally allowed to just walk into a store and buy one.
    – aroth
    Jan 8, 2018 at 11:48

7 Answers 7


The $3000 cleanup was never a thing. It's an urban myth created from a political slander. The goal of the slander was to resist CFLs at any cost, both to resist government regulation generally, and efficiency due to its association with climate change. This also tied into 50 years of activism to reduce mercury in the environment. The fact is, if the mercury in a broken CFL were any danger, or any problem in the waste stream, they would never have gotten government or UL approval in the first place.

So this was not a surprise; the mercury "problem" was contemplated and resolved long before it became a spiral shaped political football. EPA and various state DEQ's have collectively rolled their eyes and said "allriiiight... Since you insisted on bringing this up, here are some best practices for cleaning up a CFL" and they involve stuff like mopping it up with the sticky side of duct tape.

You would be best following that advice.

(if you called enough remediation companies, eventually someone would take your $3000, but don't.)

If CFL recycling facilities exist at a nearby city or big box store, use them.

Otherwise just put it in the normal waste stream, not commingled or encased with recyclables. Don't put in a steel can. You may not be aware of it, but they don't just tip the truck at the dump anymore, now it goes through a complicated screening to find recyclables. Some of it is automatic (magnets to pull out steel, magnetic-field tricks to flip out nonferrous metals etc.) and and hand inspection for bundles of newspaper and the like.

Using a steel can as a jacket for something nasty will only get the nasty thing into the steel recycling stream.

  • 2
    Most kinds of products don't need government approval to be sold. Also, fluorescent tubes predate most environmental law. Jan 8, 2018 at 4:04
  • 8
    In the US, Home Depot has CFL recycling bins with plastic bags you're supposed to put them in. I'd get one of their bags, clean up the bits, and put it in their bin. I expect the whole thing is processed en masse.
    – Tim B
    Jan 8, 2018 at 5:33
  • 4
    @WayneConrad - No, it's accurate enough. Though the real reason for the paranoia-mongering around CFL's has more to do with vested interests in power companies and the fact that endorsing anything on the grounds that it uses less energy than the thing it replaces is counted as tacit acceptance of climate-change science, than it does the government "taking away" people's incandescent bulbs.
    – aroth
    Jan 8, 2018 at 11:45
  • 1
    This happens from time to time. Someone says something fairly neutral about the general politics around a decision, and it's taken well. Then, with a notable time lag, someone complains about politics, ascribing a political position and level of extremism that nobody else saw.Actually, all the kerfluffle is being manufactured by the latecomer. He is politicizing a discussion that wasn't about him (now it is). He "strawmans" points which don't say what he wants to argue with, so he can argue. Nothing they say is true. Jan 8, 2018 at 19:26
  • 1
    @WayneConrad rewrite of that section done to address tone. Intermediate edit removed as it contained false statements and was no less political. Jan 8, 2018 at 20:10

the epa says you can put it in the trash

Next, check with your local government about disposal requirements in your area, because some localities require fluorescent bulbs (broken or unbroken) be taken to a local recycling center. If there is no such requirement in your area, you can dispose of the materials with your household trash.


(detailed cleanup instructons as well)

  • I was on the first posts page clicked and was in such a hurry I responded before reading the posts and did not see yours. But yes you are correct, however there are other factors for cleanup the op needs to follow , taking to HHW regardless of the ability to toss it in the trash - is the responsible thing.
    – Ken
    Jan 8, 2018 at 6:11

Here's the math to show that a few broken fluorescent bulbs don't pose a significant mercury hazard, and that you should clean it up the same as any other broken glass.

A CFL contains 5 mg of mercury vapor, less for new models.

Unless you plan on eating the broken glass, the primary exposure pathway is inhalation. Adults breathe about 8 liters per minute when sedentary. That's about 4 m^3 in 8 hours.

Therefore, if you huffed all of the gas inside one CFL, your 8-hr average exposure would be 5/4 = 1.2 mg/m^3.

What does 1.2 mean? For comparison, here are some airborne mercury exposure limitations from this OSHA fact sheet. The numbers are low, because mercury accumulates in the body over a lifetime.

  • 0.1 mg/m^3 (OSHA PEL, 8-hr average, a maximum for workers in the US).
  • 0.05 mg/m^3 (NIOSH 10-hr workday, a recommendation).
  • 0.025 mg/m^3 (ACGIH 8-hr average, another recommendation).

1.2/0.1 = 12× the OSHA PEL. That's 12 work-days worth of acceptable exposure. (Better call in sick.) However, the cited fact sheet, above, is for industrial fluorescent tube crushing machines; the workers near such a machine would be exposed every work day for their career, not your once-a-decade accident.

In conclusion, you should be concerned about mercury vapor from fluorescent tubes only in the most extreme and improbable circumstances, or if it's your job. If you ventilate the affected room with open doors and windows, and don't do this very often, you'll have bigger things to worry about.

If you still want to handle the waste with extra care, the only authority would necessarily be your trash hauler. Ask them. They may tell you to throw it in the regular trash. A dedicated waste steam for fluorescent tubes would be regulated (in the US) as "Universal Waste", which is for hazardous wastes that are politically infeasible to regulate as such.

  • 1
    Nice math and good information , but does not deal with disposal - which EPA has good info on. In short they say here is how to mitigate the risks during cleanup and from the damage - NOTHING costly or DIFFICULT.. sweep (not vacuum)..put in sealed container. Take to Household Waste Center - air out room with no AC/Heat [for 4 hours] Remediation is done. However I am game for the $3000 if the op wants to pay me..
    – Ken
    Jan 8, 2018 at 6:15
  • 1
    This. How you "deal with a broken CFL" is that you leave the room first, then come back and clean it up later.
    – Mazura
    Jan 8, 2018 at 19:12
  • Heavy metal poisoning is cumulative.
    – Joshua
    Jan 8, 2018 at 20:20

The second option but instead of landfill, take it to your local recycling facility (UK: household waste recycling centre) and put it in the "fluorescent light tubes" section.

  • 4
    At my local "solid waste transfer station" (bulk trash + recycling) (Maryland, USA) they have a long row of specialized areas for collecting fluorescent bulbs, paint, batteries, computers, oil, etc. - pretty much any potentially hazardous and/or specialty recyclable material found in a normal house. But not every place has such a good facility. Jan 7, 2018 at 15:19
  • Some specifically exclude broken bulbs (though as they'll clearly get broken in transit given the container this is probably just "don't handle broken glass on our premises")
    – Chris H
    Jan 8, 2018 at 9:48

Ok it sounds like you are in the USA:

Here is a wonderful article from https://www.epa.gov/cfl/cleaning-broken-cfl

Abbreviated info: Sweep it up , not vacuum, seal it up - if your local government requires florescent bulbs (broken or not) to be taken to Household Hazardous Waste do so - otherwise throw in the trash (You might consider HHW regardless).

Instructions copied from the EPA page linked above:

Before Cleanup

Have people and pets leave the room.

Air out the room for 5-10 minutes by opening a window or door to the outdoor environment.

Shut off the central forced air heating/air-conditioning system, if you have one.

Collect materials needed to clean up broken bulb:

  • stiff paper or cardboard;
  • sticky tape;
  • damp paper towels or disposable wet wipes (for hard surfaces); and
  • a glass jar with a metal lid or a sealable plastic bag.

During Cleanup

DO NOT VACUUM. Vacuuming is not recommended unless broken glass remains after all other cleanup steps have been taken. Vacuuming could spread mercury-containing powder or mercury vapor.

Be thorough in collecting broken glass and visible powder. Scoop up glass fragments and powder using stiff paper or cardboard. Use sticky tape, such as duct tape, to pick up any remaining small glass fragments and powder. Place the used tape in the glass jar or plastic bag. See the detailed cleanup instructions for more information, and for differences in cleaning up hard surfaces versus carpeting or rugs.

Place cleanup materials in a sealable container.

After Cleanup

Promptly place all bulb debris and cleanup materials, including vacuum cleaner bags, outdoors in a trash container or protected area until materials can be disposed of. Avoid leaving any bulb fragments or cleanup materials indoors.

Next, check with your local government about disposal requirements in your area, because some localities require fluorescent bulbs (broken or unbroken) be taken to a local recycling center. If there is no such requirement in your area, you can dispose of the materials with your household trash.

If practical, continue to air out the room where the bulb was broken and leave the heating/air conditioning system shut off for several hours.


Since you are in the U.S. put them in a plastic or zip lock bag and take them to a big box store for recycling. A mask will not help but nitralite or rubber gloves are a good idea more to protect from cuts. There are mercury spill kits available but to tell the truth there is not enough in a CFL to be a concern to me in a garage but having it recycled properly is a good idea. Mercury evaporates breaks down over time and releases unhealthy byproducts but normal ventilation would be sufficient in a garage. If heated mercury can be lethal in gas form above 400deg or so when I worked with large high power lamps of one exploded we left the area until the equipment cooled down then we would clean up and wipe down. There are inexpensive spill kits Most work by having a material that the mercury will bond to and then can be cleaned up much easier but then all the material is now contaminated and is hazardous waste.

  • will the box stores actually take broken ones?
    – agentp
    Jan 7, 2018 at 13:14
  • 2
    @agentp chances are they will get broken in the bin anyway. I've never seen a notice at stores saying not to recycle broken bulbs.
    – Kat
    Jan 7, 2018 at 16:44
  • I tried taking in a broken one years ago (I think it was Home Depot but can't remember distinctly) and was told no. Jan 8, 2018 at 2:06
  • @Kat The issue is not really whether they can be recycled, it's whether these stores will actually accept them for recycling. Jan 8, 2018 at 17:40
  • I have taken in quite a few my point was it can be taken in for disposal and if needed there was a cleanup kit for less than 30$ for those that looked at the link. But there are better answers.
    – Ed Beal
    Jan 8, 2018 at 19:51

Spencer's analysis of the OSHA recommendations is misleading. The OSHA quotes 0.1 mg/m^3 as a maximum. That means that if you are working in a room which is 6m x 3m x 3m the maximum amount of mercury permitted in that room on average over eight hours is 5.4 mg. The amount you ingest would be much lower than that.

The acute lethal dose for most mercury compounds is listed by the EPA as being between 1 and 4 mg for a 70kg person, so I advise against "huffing" the mercury. See the top of page 3:


  • 2
    "between 1 and 4 mg" is 1-4 grams (1000× higher) in the linked document. My point was that even absurdly conservative assumptions led to a conclusion of safety. Jan 8, 2018 at 15:24
  • It's badly phrased in that document. It's 14-57 mg per kilogram, which works out (for a 70-kg person) to 1-4 grams. Jan 8, 2018 at 17:47
  • Sorry for adding to the confusion. You are both right. Spencer's analysis is still not the way to get to the toxicity, though - the 1-4g is (presumably) the LD50.
    – AlDante
    Jan 9, 2018 at 18:04

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.