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What To Do with Old Light Bulbs

So, you’re ready to part ways with that old light bulb. Before you consider tossing it in the trash, let’s take a moment to reflect on the many potential second lives it could lead.

Light bulbs, like people, deserve a shot at a brighter future. I have gone into the world of light bulb repurposing and have come up with some splendid, sustainable, and, dare I say, shining solutions.

tl;dr: Old light bulbs should never be thrown away mindlessly. They can be recycled, upcycled into unique DIY crafts, or responsibly disposed of to avoid environmental harm.

Understanding Light Bulbs: Different Types and Concerns

The first thing to understand about old light bulbs is that there isn’t just one kind. From incandescents to CFLs, the methods and precautions for disposal or repurposing vary.

  • Incandescent Bulbs: These are your classic bulbs. While they can’t be recycled like some other bulb types, they can be thrown away if they aren’t broken. However, I recommend upcycling them, which we’ll get into that later.
  • CFL Bulbs: Compact Fluorescent Lights contain a small amount of mercury, so they shouldn’t be thrown in the trash. They must be recycled properly.
  • LED Bulbs: LEDs last a long time, but when they do burn out, they can often be recycled, though the options might be more limited compared to CFLs.

Recycling Old Light Bulbs

Before you jump into DIY crafts or creative repurposing, consider recycling your light bulbs, especially if they are CFLs or LEDs.

I recommend checking with your local recycling center or municipal waste management program to see if they accept these bulbs. Many home improvement stores also offer bulb recycling programs.

Note: CFL bulbs, which contain mercury, should always be recycled to prevent the harmful substance from contaminating the environment.

Upcycling Ideas: From Trash to Treasure

Rather than sending old bulbs off into the unknown, why not transform them into something eye-catching? Here are a few of my personal favorite upcycling ideas:

  • Vases: Hold onto those memories of glowing nights by turning incandescent bulbs into delicate vases for small flowers.
  • Ornaments: Sprinkle some creativity, and you can convert old bulbs into lovely holiday ornaments.
  • Terrariums: These mini ecosystems inside a bulb can serve as an excellent desk decor.

Note: When working with light bulbs, always handle with care to avoid breakage and potential injury. Always work on a flat surface, and wear safety gloves if possible.

Responsible Disposal

If neither recycling nor upcycling seems feasible, consider the responsible disposal of your bulbs.

Landfills are not ideal homes for old bulbs, especially CFLs, as they can leach mercury. Instead, I recommend finding a local hazardous waste disposal site or drop-off event for safe bulb disposal.

Why It Matters: The Science

Now, why all this fuss about light bulbs?

A study from the Environmental Protection Agency points out that improperly disposed CFLs can release mercury into the environment, contaminating our waterways and harming marine life. Beyond CFLs, the collective dumping of light bulbs adds to our ever-growing waste problem.

I recommend always choosing the recycling route when possible. Not only does it divert waste from landfills, but it also ensures valuable materials like metal, glass, and even rare earth elements can be reused.

Safety First: Handling Broken Bulbs

While we’ve touched upon recycling and upcycling bulbs, it’s crucial to understand the safety measures for handling broken bulbs, especially CFLs.

CFLs and Mercury Exposure: If a CFL breaks, it can release a minute amount of mercury vapor. While not a significant risk in small amounts, repeated exposure or large spills can pose health hazards. I recommend immediately ventilating the room by opening windows and doors for at least 10 minutes if a CFL breaks.

Avoid using vacuum cleaners which can spread the mercury. Instead, wear disposable gloves, carefully pick up the broken pieces using stiff paper or cardboard, and seal them in a plastic bag.

Alternative Disposal Options

Apart from recycling centers and hazardous waste facilities, there are other venues where you can dispose of old bulbs:

  • Mail-back Services: Some manufacturers and third-party companies offer mail-back services where you can send your used CFLs or LEDs for recycling. Always ensure that the bulbs are packed securely to prevent breakage during transit.
  • Retailer Take-back: Some retailers, especially those specializing in home improvement, provide bins for customers to return used bulbs. This method ensures that the bulbs are handled and recycled appropriately.

Creative Reuse Ideas for Old Light Bulbs

While we’ve touched on a few upcycling ideas, the sky’s the limit when it comes to creativity. Here are some more innovative ways to repurpose those bulbs:

  • Oil Lamps: With some wick and a bit of oil, transform your old bulb into a unique tabletop oil lamp.
  • Mini Greenhouses: Use clear bulbs as mini greenhouses to start seeds. The glass can provide a warm environment for seeds to germinate.
  • Salt and Pepper Shakers: Clean out bulbs, fill them with salt or pepper, and add a perforated metal cap.
  • Hanging Garden: String up multiple bulbs filled with small plants to create a hanging garden feature for interiors.

Environmental Impact

Beyond just mercury in CFLs, irresponsible disposal of bulbs adds to environmental degradation. Glass, when not recycled, can remain in landfills indefinitely.

The production of new glass, metals, and other materials used in bulbs requires significant energy and natural resources. By repurposing and recycling, we reduce the demand for new raw materials, thereby reducing our carbon footprint.

Educate and Advocate

The journey doesn’t stop at responsible disposal or crafting new creations. I recommend sharing your knowledge about the importance of proper light bulb disposal with friends, family, and community.

Hosting workshops, attending community clean-up events, or even sharing information on social media can make a difference. As the adage goes, “Knowledge is light,” and by spreading it, we can collectively shine brighter.


Our choices, as simple as what we do with old light bulbs, have repercussions. By recycling, upcycling, or responsibly disposing of these items, we can light the way for a sustainable, environmentally-conscious future.

So, the next time you face a dim bulb, remember its potential, and choose the path that shines brightest.


Can I throw away LED bulbs?

While it’s technically safe to dispose of LEDs in the trash, recycling is the eco-friendlier choice.

How do I recycle CFL bulbs?

Many local recycling centers and home improvement stores offer CFL recycling. Always check with your local resources.

Is it dangerous to throw away bulbs with mercury?

Yes, CFLs, which contain mercury, should never be thrown away with regular trash. They must be handled as hazardous waste.

Let’s be the change, one bulb at a time!


  • Chris Chamberlan

    Chris Chamberlan, passionate animal welfare activist and USC graduate, conducted undercover RSPCA missions exposing slaughterhouse malpractices. A vegan and advocate for humane treatment, Chris has spoken at international conferences, been involved in vegan outreach, and founded Solarpunk Solutions for sustainability. His blending of animal welfare with eco-living principles for a compassionate future.

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