How to replace and recycle fluorescent tubes safely

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Fluorescent tubes are designed to last for many years, so when it comes to changing them, you might not have done it before. Although replacing a fluorescent tube is simple, it’s not as straightforward as changing a regular light bulb, and it can actually be quite dangerous.

Why are fluorescent tubes potentially dangerous?

Fluorescent tubes contain mercury and phosphor powder which, when combined with an electrical current, produce light.

While the amount of mercury inside the tubes isn’t enough to cause you immediate health problems, it is still toxic, so you should always take care to keep the tubes intact.

Because mercury is poisonous, fluorescent tubes are classed as hazardous waste. This means they have to be disposed of properly at specific recycling sites. However, not every landfill site will be equipped to handle them.

According to some statistics only 5% of fluorescent tubes get recycled, which means there are huge quantities of potentially dangerous mercury heading to landfill sites.

How do I replace a fluorescent tube safely?

A fluorescent tube needs replacing when it:

  • starts flickering
  • only lights at one end
  • won’t light at all

If you haven’t changed a tube before, follow these steps:

  1. Switch off the light and then turn off the electricity completely.
  2. Using a stepladder to reach, rotate the tube until the prongs at either end are vertical. You’ll know when this happens as you’ll be able to slide the tube down and out of the fixture. Put the tube somewhere safe, where it won’t get broken.
  3. Fit the new tube by lining up the prongs with the slots at both ends of the socket. Push the tube into the socket and twist it until it locks into place.
  4. Turn the electricity back on, then switch on the light to see if the new tube is working.

You must dispose of the old tube correctly—don’t just throw it in the bin!

How do I dispose of fluorescent tubes safely?

Fluorescent tubes (and other similar lighting products) are classed as waste electrical and electronic equipment (WEEE) under a special law known as the WEEE Directive. Other types of WEEE include:

  • large household appliances (e.g. fridges, cookers, washing machines)
  • IT and telecommunications equipment (e.g. PCs, photocopiers)
  • audio-visual equipment (e.g. TVs, hi-fis, digital cameras)
  • electrical tools (e.g. drills, saws, lawnmowers)

Because this kind of equipment often contains hazardous materials (including arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury), it must be disposed of correctly so it can be recycled.

As a result, you must take all your old fluorescent tubes to your local council recycling centre. They have the knowledge and equipment needed to dispose of the bulbs safely.

Keep in mind that some council-run recycling sites don’t take commercial waste, and may refuse you if you have a large number of tubes, or you’re disposing of them on behalf of a business. Some sites also restrict access to certain-sized vehicles, so it’s best to call ahead to check.

When you go, remember to take some ID that shows your current address—some centres only allow local residents to use their recycling services.

And it’s always a good idea to check the opening times before you travel.

Where to recycle your tubes—major UK cities

If you live or work in London, Birmingham, Manchester or Leeds and want to know where you can recycle your tubes safely, click on your city below for a map showing recycling sites and companies in your area:

Can I hire a company to recycle fluorescent tubes for me?

If your local council-run centre won’t accept your old fluorescent tubes, there are specialist companies that will take them from you. They might even collect them from your premises or a designated collection point.

When hiring a waste disposal company, make sure they’ve registered with the Environment Agency and acquired a permit to handle hazardous waste.

Things to remember when hiring a recycling company

  • Some companies may have specific rules for collecting tubes—for example, they may ask that you package them in special boxes.
  • Don’t tape tubes together as this can cause problems when they need to be separated later for recycling.
  • If you have a number of tubes, pack them in strong, secure boxes and fill the boxes completely with newspaper or other soft packing materials to stop the tubes moving around. You could use the tubes’ original packaging, if you still have it.

What are the old tubes recycled into?

Most parts of a fluorescent tube can be recycled.

  • The mercury and other chemicals can be re-used in new light bulbs.
  • The glass goes into making other glass products.
  • The metal prongs are sold for scrap, so could be turned into anything!
  • Even the internal coating on the tube can be re-used in paint pigments.

I’ve broken a fluorescent tube by accident. What should I do?

First, don’t panic! As we said earlier, the amount of mercury in a tube is very small (only enough to cover a pin head, in fact) and you’d have to inhale a lot of it to be poisoned.

However, it still isn’t something you want to risk, so follow these tips to dispose of a broken tube in the safest way possible:

  1. Empty the room of people and pets.
  2. Open the windows, switch off your central heating and air conditioning and leave the room for at least 15 minutes.
  3. Put on rubber gloves and grab two pieces of cardboard, sticky tape, kitchen wipes (or damp paper towels) and a sealable plastic bag (if you don’t have one, a large glass jar with a lid will do).
  4. Using one piece of cardboard, scoop the broken tube onto the other piece and drop it into the bag.
  5. Use the sticky tape to collect fragments of glass and powder from the floor, then put the used tape into the bag.
  6. Remove any further waste with the kitchen wipes (or damp paper towels). Put these in the bag and seal it.
  7. Don’t vacuum the carpet until you’re sure you’ve cleaned up all the waste. If you vacuum too soon, you risk sucking up tiny amounts of mercury that will disperse into the air the next time you use the vacuum cleaner.
    If you have a bag-less vacuum cleaner, put the contents of the cylinder into another sealable bag then clean the cylinder with a wet wipe (or damp paper towel) and put that into the bag too. If your vacuum cleaner uses bags, just put the whole thing into your sealable waste bag when you’re done.
  8. Contact your local authority about where to dispose of the sealed bags. It’s hazardous waste and you must not put it in your wheelie bin.

Where can I find replacement fluorescent tubes?

If you’re looking to replace your fluorescent tubes, why not switch to LED tubes instead? Not only are they safer and less damaging to the environment—they don’t contain any mercury or hazardous materials—they last for around 50,000 hours, which is roughly 15,000 hours longer than the fluorescent kind!

For more information on upgrading the lighting in your home to LED, click here.

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Published 2017/01/20

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