The federal government has quietly backed away from a plan for mandatory recycling of compact fluorescent light bulbs, which contain the toxic element mercury, CBC News has learned.​

Instead, the Harper government posted regulations earlier this month that will create a voluntary code of practice for companies that sell the bulbs.

The federal government announced in 2007 it would ban incandescent light bulbs in favour of the compact fluorescent ones because they use less energy.

John Baird, minister of the environment at the time, made the announcement at a Home Depot store, where he proudly dropped a used bulb into a box for recycling.

John Baird recycles light bulb

John Baird, then the environment minister, demonstrates recycling a compact fluorescent light bulb at a Home Depot in 2007, as he announces plans to phase out incandescent bulbs. Home Depot no longer accepts the bulbs for recycling. (CBC)

But last year, Home Depot stopped recycling the bulbs, leaving it up to third-party operations instead.

Another home renovation store, Rona, does take back the bulbs. Jules Foisy-Lapointe is the director of sustainable development for Rona.

"They are products that over their life cycle, have a better footprint than any incandescent bulbs. But of course you have to manage them properly at their end of life," Foisy-Lapointe said.

Foisy-Lapointe wouldn't say how much Rona's program cost the company every year, but last year it recycled about 370,000 of the curlicue compact bulbs.

Lower mercury limits

Under the Harper government's new regulations, posted a few weeks ago, stores will not be forced to follow Rona's lead.

Instead, the government will make the practice voluntary.

But the new rules do limit the amount of mercury in the compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Maggie MacDonald, who specializes in toxic chemicals at Environmental Defence, said consumers need easy ways to get rid of harmful products.

"When there isn't clear instructions for people or a good level of common knowledge what to do with products that contain toxic chemicals, people can end up putting them in the waste stream," she said. "Things that shouldn't belong in the garbage get tossed in the garbage if people don't know what to do with them."

NDP environment critic Megan Leslie isn't surprised by the new regulations.

"It really is representative to me of how the Conservatives think of the environment: voluntary. You should take care of the environment if it makes you feel good and you got a little extra time," she said.

Liberal MP David McGuinty encouraged his constituents to use compact fluorescent bulbs at the time of the announcement, because of the benefit of lower energy use.

He's unhappy the government isn't helping to dispose of them now.

"We need to make sure that we close the loop on this. Closing the loop on this means that we need a mandatory take-back system. Having a voluntary one means that so many of these bulbs end up in landfills. And that's very worrisome given the toxicity of mercury," McGuinty told CBC.

Environment Minister Leona Aglukkaq declined CBC's request for an interview. But in a statement, her office wrote that waste management is a provincial responsibility and the new rules respect their jurisdiction.

The voluntary code of practice will be released in 2015.

With files from Sara Brunetti