image from State Library & Archives of Florida
Lacking light bulbs, our lives would be pretty dim and smell constantly of of candle wax. It's certainly lovely to have electric lights from a pragmatic perspective, and there are a myriad options for making them pretty, like star lamps or chandeliers. You may buy a lamp you love and never let it go, but light bulbs don't last forever, so when you buy them you have to consider not only the price and energy output, but also the environmental impact of disposing of them.
Incandescent bulbs (shown above, though on a slightly grander scale) are made of glass, with a metal wire called a filament inside. Electricity flows through the filament and heats it up, causing it to glow and produce light. Much of the energy used to create the light is lost in heat, which makes these bulbs the least energy efficient of the three types. The positive thing about these bulbs is that they are less expensive than the others at the outset (although over time they may prove to be more so, when the electric bill arrives). These bulbs cannot be recycled, but if you are the DIY type you can recycle them on your own. Readymade Magazine has a great tutorial on making a really chic vase out of an old bulb on their website.
CFL light bulbs (the swirly-curly-looking bulbs) are made of a thin glass tube that is coated on the inside with a white powder called phosphor. Phosphor has a chemical reaction when exposed to electricity which is what creates the light we see. These are popular because they use about 70% less energy than an incandescent bulb and last about ten times longer. If every household in the U.S. replaced just one standard light bulb with a compact fluorescent bulb, it would prevent enough pollution to equal removing one million cars from the road. That's huge! These bulbs are also ideal for illuminating paper lanterns or using where little hands might touch them, because they stay much cooler than other lighting sources.
CFL's are awesome! But like all technology that rocks, there is usually a downside. They contain small amounts of Mercury, which aren't bad for you (unless you are breaking hundreds of CFL light bulbs a day; please don't do that), but it is very important that they are disposed of properly. If you throw a CFL away with the rest of your garbage, that mercury is going to the landfill where it will seep into the Earth and come back to haunt you and all the local plants and animals later. That's not very nice. But you can (and must!) recycle them, and it is really easy!
You have several options for recycling your CFLS. Depending on the state you live in, your local dump might have a special bin for CFLs or even a pick-up service. Some areas have a CFL pick up once a month or once a year, so be sure to check this list to find out what and when the plan is for your town.
If your time is in shorter supply than money, some sites like 1000bulbs.com (which also has really good prices on light bulbs) or lightbulbrecycling.com offer CFL recycling kits for sale. You get a bucket or a bag to fill with light bulbs over time; when it's full, you pop on the return label they sent you, call Fedex and then leave it outside your door where they will come pick it up! Easy as pie.
Another way to go is to take your expired bulbs with you when you go shopping. Bring your bulbs to any Ikea or Home Depot (some Ace and Aubochon Hardware stores also) and they will recycle them for you. Ikea will also recycle your cans, glass, plastic, paper and cardboard if you feel so inclined, and usually have bins outside the store exit for those items(bulbs need to be brought inside).
LED lights, which look much like the standard incandescent bulb, are also super energy-efficient. They last upwards of 50,000 hours, so if you buy an LED light and leave it on for 8 hours a day, you should be able to continue using that bulb for about 10 years. These bulbs are shatterproof and run cool to the touch. They are a lot more expensive than other bulbs, usually around $40. They also have an inherently directional way of dispersing light, so the size of a space an LED illuminates might be significantly smaller than those lit by another type of bulb. These bulbs can't be recycled, so if you don't want to add more trash to your local landfill when the bulb burns out, you should definitely repurpose it, maybe to make this penguin, or whatever fun project you can come up with!
It is really cool that there are orginizations out there that help us recycle when dealing with something that is hazardous to just throw away. But should the things that aren't required to be recycled just become trash? It's when we are confronted with these issues that we have to get creative.
Do you have any ideas for recycling/upcycling objects that are not traditionally considered recyclable? We would love to hear them!