Replacing and Recycling Fluorescent Tubes Safely
Fluorescent tubes are designed to last for many years, so when it comes to changing them, there's a chance you might not have done it before. Although changing a fluorescent tube is simple, it's not quite as straightforward as changing a regular bulb and, believe it or not, it can actually be quite dangerous.
A fluorescent tube needs replacing when it starts flickering, when it only lights at one end or when it just won't light at all. If you've not changed a tube before, then follow these steps:
- Switch off the light switch and then switch off the electricity supply
- Grab a step ladder (don't be tempted to stand on a chair!) and rotate the tube until the prongs at either end are vertical. You will know when this happens as you will be able to slide the tube down and out of the fixture. Once removed, place the tube in a safe place where it won't get broken
- Fit the new tube by lining up the end prongs with the slots at both ends of the socket. Push the tube into the socket and twist it until it locks in place
- Switch the electricity back on and then switch the light on to see if the new tube is working
Once you've changed your light bulb, it's important that you dispose of the old light bulb correctly and don't just throw it in the bin.
Why is it so important to recycle fluorescent tubes?
Did you know that fluorescent tubes contain mercury? This mercury is the reason why the tubes need to be disposed of carefully as if they are broken, the mercury is released into the atmosphere and can be a health hazard, whether this happens in your home or on a landfill site. As well as mercury and glass, fluorescent tubes contain ferrous and non-ferrous metals and phosphor powder; it is the phosphor powder which includes mercury.
How dangerous is the mercury in fluorescent tubes?
Although the amount of mercury in a lamp is tiny, the chemical is so potent that the mercury in one fluorescent tube is enough to contaminate over 50,000 pints of water and make it unfit for drinking. It is clear then why care is needed when disposing of the tubes.
According to some statistics only 2-5% of fluorescent tubes get recycled which means there are huge quantities of potentially dangerous mercury heading to landfill sites.
The good news is that in small amounts, the mercury in light bulbs is not dangerous to an individual. According to the NHS website: "this small amount of mercury is extremely unlikely to cause problems for your health." So as long as the tube remains intact, there is a minimum risk to your health from the mercury in fluorescent tubes. Should the tube break, ensure that the correct safety procedures are followed during the clear up. For more information on how to tidy up after a fluorescent breakage, see below.
How do I recycle my tubes?
If you have fluorescent tubes in your home or place of work then it's really important that you recycle them correctly to protect yourself, others and the environment from mercury.
You can contact your local authority for information on how to dispose of tubes safely. If you have a lot of tubes which need recycling regularly then you can contact your supplier as under the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Regulations they should offer to arrange the collection and recycling of the lamps for you.
Fluorescent tubes are actually classed as hazardous waste by the Environment Agency which means they are recognised as a pollutant if not properly disposed of and need to be recycled properly or disposed of in a specialist landfill site if recycling isn't an option.
What are the old lamps recycled in to?
Most parts of a fluorescent tube can be recycled. The mercury and other chemicals can be used again in new light bulbs, the glass is recycled into other glass products and the metal prongs are sold for scrap metal so could turn into anything! Even the internal coating on the tube can be recycled and used in paint pigments.
What to do if you break a fluorescent tube?
Firstly, don't panic! As we said earlier, the amount of mercury in a tube is very small, in fact one tube only contains enough mercury to cover a pin head. However, there is still a chance it can cause health issues, especially if inhaled. Although you'd have to inhale a large amount of mercury to suffer from mercury poisoning, it's not something you want to risk getting, however unlikely, as symptoms include chest pains, breathing difficulties and coughing up blood.
So if the worst happens and you smash a tube in your home, these tips will help you dispose of a broken tube in the safest way possible:
- Ask anyone else in the room to leave and remove any pets or children from the room
- Open the windows, switch off your air-conditioning and leave the room for at least 15 minutes
- Put on a pair of rubber gloves and grab two pieces of cardboard, sticky tape, kitchen wipes (or damp paper towels), a plastic bag with a seal or if you don't have this, a large glass jar with a lid
- Scoop the broken tube onto the cardboard, using the other piece of cardboard as a scoop and drop the waste into the bag or the jar
- Use the sticky tape to collect smaller fragments of glass and powder off the floor and then put this used tape in your container
- Use the damp paper towels or wet wipes to remove any further waste from hard floors or surfaces and place these in your container and seal it
- Contact your local authority about where to dispose of the waste, as it's hazardous waste you should avoid putting it in your household bin
- You can vacuum the carpet only when there are no visible signs of waste and once you've finished, place the entire bag (or the contents of the vacuum if bag-less) into another sealable container. If you have a bag-less vacuum then wide out the drum with a wet wipe or damp paper towel and put this into your waste container. It's important not to vacuum (or to use a brush) straightaway as vacuuming can cause the mercury vapour to spread in the air
Need to replace your tube?
If you're looking for a replacement for your lamps then you could consider switching your traditional T8 fluorescents with T8 LEDs. LED tubes are mercury free so therefore much easier to dispose of, and even better, you probably won't need to replace them that often anyway as on average a T8 fluorescent tube lasts around 50,000 hours!
- For statistics on fluorescent tube waste and recycling visit INQ.co.uk or check out the Wikipedia page
- To find out more about WEEE and the advantages of this recycling system visit www.hse.gov.uk/waste/waste-electrical.htm
- Look on your local council’s website on where you can recycle your fluorescent tubes
- The NHS website has further information on mercury poisoning, including symptoms and what to do if you think you may have been poisoned
- Check out Lamp Shop Online's Ultimate Guide to Office Lighting for more information on updating the lighting in your office
- To find out how a tube works, read our guide How Does a Fluorescent Lamp Work