How to Make Money Recycling Tungsten from Old Light Bulbs


If you’ve visited the lightbulb aisle at a home superstore lately, you know a big change has taken place. The old incandescent light bulbs that people used for decades have disappeared and been replaced by a variety of new bulbs, most commonly Compact Florescent Lightbulbs called CFL’s, that work much differently from old incandescent bulbs.

Old incandescent bulbs contained tungsten. Does that mean you can make a lot of money if you collect them and send them to Specialty Metals Smelters and Refiners? Let’s find out. 

How Compact Florescent Lightbulbs Work

They are small, coiled versions of the long fluorescent lightbulbs that have been used for years. In their bulb form, those tubes are coiled and look like corkscrews. Some bulbs don’t look like that; their coiled tubes are hidden inside a glass bulb that makes them look like the familiar old incandescent bulbs.

CFLs are basically tubes that are filled with a gas that is usually made up of mercury vapor and argon; when electricity passes through, the gas becomes excited and emits light. CFLs are replacing incandescent bulbs because they last longer and generate less heat. So overall, they are better for the environment.  

How Incandescent Bulbs Worked

These familiar (and now extinct) bulbs were the direct descendants of the original lightbulbs invented by Edison. They were simplicity itself. After you screwed one into a socket and turned on the power, current flowed through a metal filament inside the bulb, causing it to heat up and glow brightly.

Why have incandescent bulbs gone away? There are a number of reasons. They generated excessive amounts of heat, burned out quickly, and then needed to be discarded in large numbers. All very bad for Mother Earth.

But the good thing for recyclers is that their elements were made of tungsten, which can sometimes be recycled profitably.

How Much Recyclable Tungsten Is in Incandescent Bulbs, and What Is It Worth?

Yes, most incandescent bulbs contain small amounts of tungsten carbide (an alloy made up of tungsten and carbon), which is worth about $14/pound. But we need to point out that after the filament in an incandescent bulb has burned out, the tungsten that it contained essentially disappeared. So if you are interested in recycling incandescent bulbs profitably, you need large quantities of unused bulbs. The good news is that it is possible to find a lot of them. The supply closets of companies can contain them, as can hardware stores that are closing and other sources.

How much tungsten does an average incandescent bulb contain? Even though the bulb’s filament looks pretty substantial (many contain up to 20 inches of coiled tungsten wire), most contain less than a gram of tungsten. That means that you will need to collect about 450 bulbs before you can have a pound of tungsten that is worth about $14.00.

So, is it worth collecting unused incandescent bulbs and having them recycled? It depends on how many you can collect. If you’re lucky enough to find boxes and boxes of old bulbs, you could have something that can turn a profit for you.

Want to Know More?

If you would like to know more about recycling tungsten - or any precious metal - give us a call at (800) 426-2344 to speak with one of our precious metal recycling consultants. If the numbers work, recycling old bulbs could turn out to be a very bright idea.

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