Products that contain mercury: lamps

Certain lamps such as lightbulbs and streetlights contain small quantities of mercury. They are commonly used both indoors and outdoors. Although they are safe to use, mercury is released when a lamp breaks. If a lamp is put in the garbage it will eventually break, so it is important to safely handle and recycle these lamps when they reach their end-of-life (burn out).

The amount of mercury allowed in imported and manufactured lamps is federally regulated. See the schedule of the Products Containing Mercury Regulations for more information.

Light emitting diode (LED) lamps are a mercury-free alternative. They are available for all types of lighting applications, offer greater energy efficiency and lifespan, and are becoming more affordable.

Common types of lamps containing mercury

Compact fluorescent lamps

Compact fluorescent lamps (CFLs) are similar in size to an incandescent bulb but use a coiled or U-shaped fluorescent tube to produce light.

Compact fluorescent lamps

Straight fluorescent lamps

Straight (or linear) fluorescent lamps are sealed glass tubes. They are used to illuminate offices, stores, warehouses and homes.

Linear fluorescent lamps

High Intensity Discharge lamps

High intensity discharge (HID) lamps are all similar in appearance but the colour and intensity of their light varies. They consist of a glass envelope with a pinched quartz glass tube and various metal electrodes inside. HID lamps are used as farmyard lights, for street lighting and in parking lots. There are three main types:

Mercury vapour lamps emit a bluish glow. Their import and manufacture for general lighting purposes are now prohibited in Canada.

Metal halide lamps are the brightest HID lamp available and emit white light.

High pressure sodium vapour lamps emit a yellowish glow.

High intensity discharge lamp

End-of-life management

Many Canadians are unaware of the need to recycle these lamps and not all have practical options for recycling them. Northern and remote communities face unique challenges in this area.

It is estimated that Canadians dispose between 200 and 400 kg of mercury in landfills each year from lamps of all types. In 2015, 44% reported throwing CFLs into the garbage.

Even small releases of mercury are a concern. The total amount of lamps in a typical Canadian household contain enough mercury to contaminate an Olympic size swimming pool beyond the Canadian water quality guideline for the protection of aquatic life (26 nanograms/litre).

Figure 1: The percentage of households in each province that reported throwing compact fluorescent lamps in the garbage in 2015

A map of Canadian provinces showing the percentage of households in each province that reported throwing CFLs in the garbage in 2015. Text version below.
Long description

The figure shows a map of Canadian provinces. For each province, the percentage of households that reported throwing CFLs in the garbage in 2015 is shown. BC: 20-30%. Alberta: 50-60%. Saskatchewan: 50-60%. Manitoba: 40-50%. Ontario: 30-40%. Quebec: 50-60%. New Brunswick: 60-70%. Nova Scotia: 60-70%. Newfoundland and Labrador: 50-60%.  

Recycling lamps containing mercury

End-of-life lamps containing mercury must be sent to specialized processing facilities to prevent the release of mercury into the environment. There are facilities across Canada that safely break them down and recover their components. This is known as environmentally sound disposal or simply lamp recycling.

In many parts of Canada, recycling programs for lamps are run by provincial, territorial and municipal governments as well as the private sector. Several provinces have extended producer responsibility programs where the manufacturer, brand owner or first importer is responsible for funding lamp recycling. Some municipalities collect bulbs year-round or run household hazardous waste collection events, and some retailers accept them free of charge. See Inventory of recycling programs in Canada for more information.

Taking action

The Government of Canada is currently developing a national strategy for safe and environmentally sound disposal of lamps containing mercury. It will identify and fill gaps in end-of-life management to reduce the number of these lamps being sent to landfills across Canada. Environment and Climate Change Canada has also published a Code of Practice that provides guidance and best practices for all aspects of end-of-life management of lamps.

Related information

Code of practice for the environmentally sound management of end-of-life lamps containing mercury

National Strategy for Safe and Environmentally Sound Disposal of Lamps Containing Mercury

Safety of Compact Fluorescent Lamps

Canada's Standard for Efficient Light Bulbs – Frequently Asked Questions

Guide to Canada's Energy Efficiency Regulations

Canada-wide Standard for Mercury-containing Lamps

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