Don’t Just Trash Old Lamps, Recycle Them!

in Focus on Fundamentals

I like to imagine a day in the not-too-distant future where I’m sitting in a rocking chair watching the world drift past my front porch with my grandson on my knee. I’ll tell him of my adventures in the theater, where I once cleaned up Jell-O molds for people with blue faces, and worked at dizzying heights with only a harness for protection. He’ll be baffled by the idea of the Blue Man Group surely, and by the time I have a grandson I expect jet pack technology will have surely come to fruition.

But I think what will confuse him most is the idea that light bulbs (LAMPS!) had to be changed. He will live in an age where the idea of a light source only lasting 50,000 hours is simply preposterous, a source that lasts 10,000 will seem bizarre and one that lasts 3,000 will just make him laugh. Much as we marvel at the idea of our grandparents driving along in gasoline-fueled cars — but wait…

Dead, but Dangerous

Before we can bask in the future our grandchildren will gloriously live through, we must deal in the present. While lighting technology is improving at an incredible pace, and LED is taking over an ever-growing share of the market we still, sadly, must change lamps out from our gear. Well, if my grandson (or yours) is going to enjoy a more sustainable future, then we must properly manage our waste streams.

Why? Many theatrical lamps contain poisonous materials. Specifically, we’re talking about mercury and other heavy metals. I think here it’s very important to distinguish between the dangers of a single lamp (in case of breakage) an the aggregate of many lamps in the waste stream. To give you an idea, in a single CFL, there is less than 4 milligrams of Mercury — about the tip of a ball point pen, according to NEMA ( If your lamp’s envelope remains intact throughout its life, these gases and heavy metals will never escape the lamp, and there is no danger to the environment. The problem comes when the lamp dies and we throw it in the trash.

At some point in the trash removal process, the lamp will get crushed, breaking the envelope of the lamp and releasing the toxic materials once held within. Taken in aggregate, these toxic materials could seep into runoff and make their way into aquifers used for drinking water or seeping into the ocean.

The other issue is that theatrical lamps are largely comprised of metallic, ceramic, and glass components, all of which are valuable and can (and should) be re-used. Having them sit in a landfill is wasteful.

So how do we do that? As designers, master electricians and technical directors, how do we properly dispose of dead lamps? Most of us have some vague knowledge of lamp recycling, but how crucial is it, and what are the steps necessary to implement?

EPA and State Guidelines

Let’s start with a definition. Universal waste products — as defined by the EPA — include everything from certain types of batteries and pesticides and some electronics. They are considered toxic by the EPA and should be recycled to prevent toxic materials from infiltrating the environment. The EPA lists common Universal Waste electric lamps as fluorescent, high intensity discharge (HID), neon, mercury vapor, high pressure sodium, and metal halide lamps. I’d like to tell you that every state has a uniform code for recycling compliance, however, that is not the case. The EPA has set a baseline for protection from toxic materials but states are allowed to make additions to list and change disposal methodology. If you’re curious about the regulations in your state head here:

So knowing now what lamps should be recycled, let’s take a look at some ways to get it done. In examining the market for recycling solutions for lamps beyond the CFL, I have found two basic options. The first is better-suited for larger lighting organizations that need to dispose of many lamps and have the space required to store them temporarily. Companies like Waste Management Inc. have simple tracking and disposal programs that were initially developed for bulk fluorescent lamp recycling, but can be modified for entertainment lamps. The key is proper sequestration — separating lamps out from the rest of the facility’s waste stream. Then, scheduled or on-call pickups can be made.

It All Adds Up

But what if you’re a small theater or performing arts center? Your lamp waste stream isn’t big enough to justify the cost of a scheduled recycling program. So what do you do? Fortunately, market demand for simple recycling solutions has given us easy ways to make sure our waste lamps get broken down properly. I recently spoke with Tom Huber from Bulbtronics in midtown Manhattan. What he described to me was a growing awareness from theatre professionals on the need to recycle lamps. In response, Bulbtronics offers a product called RecyclePak.

RecyclePaks come in a variety of sizes, each meant to hold different kinds of lamps. It’s a simple container that looks kind of like a paint bucket. Depending on the size of your operation a few containers on site would be more than enough to make sure your lamps are properly contained. The truth is what you’re buying when you pick up that container is actually an on-call pick up service. Each container has a toll-free number stamped on it. When you’ve filled the container(s) ,simply call the number and the container manufacturer (Veolia) comes and gets your lamps for proper disposal. It’s a great solution for small companies or repertory spaces (like college theaters) that only need to recycle their lamps every so often.

Changing the Old Cycle

Critical to the success of any recycling program is the concept of habit formation. Whether you opt to have your lamps recycled on a scheduled basis or you simply purchase some safe containers, it’s all useless if your staff hasn’t re-shaped their habits toward recycling and away from simply tossing the old lamp in the dumpster. While it might be easy enough to grab the recycling bin when it’s time to re-lamp the moving heads for the next season, it’s harder to remember when you have a lamp die during setup for a show and you’re rushing to change it 15 minutes before the house manager opens the doors. Charles Duhigg’s book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, offers some insight into habit formation: “Habits are powerful, but delicate. They can emerge outside our consciousness, or can be deliberately designed. They often occur without our permission, but can be reshaped by fiddling with their parts.”

So just as important as researching the right disposal option for you is developing the right habits among your staff and setting the standard that recycling our old lamps is the standard, not the exception. This is already happening in commercial operations where bulk fluorescent recycling is becoming the norm, and in household applications where retailers like Home Depot will collect your old CFL lamps. As an industry, we must do our part to make sure our waste materials don’t end up harming future generations.


James Bedell, a New York-based LD and environmental advocate, works on entertainment, architectural and residential projects.