Early Recycling of Light Bulbs

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Early Recycling of Light Bulbs - Edison Light Bulb with Plate
Clayton H. Sharp, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons


Just this morning I was thinking about taking my old, used light bulbs to the recycling center.  In view of not wanting them to go to landfill. As a result of this I thought about recycling. And how it seems a relatively new idea. However, this is just not the case. In fact a hundred years ago people were recycling. So I thought it would be interesting to look at the history of the early recycling of light bulbs.

Frank Poor and Early Light Bulb Recycling

In fact, the reason that I know this is because of Frank A. Poor. Let me explain. Frank Poor was the founder of Sylvania. On account of writing many articles mentioning the company I know a little bit about him.

At the turn of the 19th century Frank was a young, fledgling entrepreneur. In 1901 he sold his hay and grain business. The lawyer for the sale suggested he invest the money in a light bulb renewal company. Though it turned out that this lawyer had a vested interest. He owned the other half of the company!

So Frank ended up as 50% partner in the Merritt Manufacturing Company. An early recycling business located in Middleton Massachusetts.

The Recycling Process

At this point in time light bulbs had a carbon filament. Tungsten-filament bulb were not invented until 1907. So, Poor’s company would buy barrels of used, burnt out bulbs at 1 cent each. Then, the factory staff sorted and washed the bulbs ready for recycling. Some of the older bulbs had platinum filaments. In this case it was better to reclaim the metal rather than recycle the bulb.

Light bulbs at the time had a pointed tip. Due to air removal being through the top of the bulbs. Remember that the filament burnt in a vacuum.
Poor ‘ s factory workers tapped off the tip. Then they removed the old, burnt out filament and replace it was a new one. Next they removed the air from the bulb using a vacuum pump. Finally they resealed the glass tip .

The factory employed 15 people mainly women and could recycle 500 light bulbs per day.

In Conclusion

Poor’s company stayed in the recycling business until 1909 when it switched to making and selling new incandescent light bulbs. At this point the newer tungsten filament bulbs were considerably cheaper, and recycling was less profitable.

All in all this story about the early years of the founder of Sylvania shows that recycling our old light bulbs is not something new. In fact, back in 1901 the bulbs were fully renewed and used again. Something to think about next time you are sorting out your recyclables.

More information on the history of Sylvania can be found in our article on the most popular light bulb brand

Sources on Early Light Bulb Recycling

We are most grateful to Effectrode whose excellent article on the early years of Sylvania supplied a lot of the information used in this post

“Sylvania” During 50 Years 1901-1951