Skip to main content

How does the lighting industry feature in the circular economy?

Light4 By Andrew Bissell, Director, Lighting Design – 23 November 2017

A circular artistic light feature in black and white


Andrew Bissell in the office with black wooden interior background

Andrew Bissell

View bio

The Ellen McArthur Foundation states ‘A circular economy is one that is restorative and regenerative by design.’ Essentially it is about designing out waste whilst minimising negative impact and moving towards renewable energy resources.

If we follow the three principles of the circular economy then we first need to preserve natural capital by controlling finite stocks. Second, we need to circulate products, components and materials at their highest utility at all times. Finally we need to reduce systematic leakage (waste).

From the principles above a successful circular economy in the lighting industry would be one where luminaires use as close to 100% recycled material; green energy in production; sourced close to the point of use; products are modular, simple and accessible to allow repairs; repairs are environmentally positive or neutral; the luminaire remains a luminaire for as long as possible and all components can be upcycled, repurposed or recycled.

With regards the use of recycled material many manufacturers are already doing this, certainly with the main body and gear tray. More so some manufacturers are using renewable energy to make the light fittings. These manufacturers are clearly already on route to adopting and accelerating the first principle of the circular economy. Are they shouting about this enough? I don’t think so and if they did, they may well become the preferred suppliers to many designers and clients who are serious about the environment. Perhaps we need a circular economy label similar to the A to F energy label we are all familiar with. In this case the CE label could indicate the relationship of percentage of recycled material used in production and the percentage of reusable components at the end of life. E.g. ‘Circular Economy Material Rating 90’ would indicate 90% of the product uses recycled material.

With regards to modularity and replacing parts then most luminaires are already modular in their construction to the extent the body, lamp and driver are individual components which can be replaced. However I feel the current failing is not that we need to break down the components further but more that we need to start fixing broken luminaires rather than replace them. A failed luminaire is usually shipped back to the manufacturer which could be thousands of miles away or put in the bin and a new one, shipped from thousands of miles away, installed in its place. More therefore needs to be done to make products easily repairable and more so repairable on site with reliable availability of parts. Which manufacturers offer reliable availability of parts and a fix on site service as part of their warranty or indeed through their aftersales service?

As with the material rating above, maybe a ‘Circular Economy Replacement Rating’ would indicate to the specifier or purchaser the likely longevity of the product and availability of components. Perhaps this even becomes time based, e.g. 100/5 means 100% of the components will be available for up to 5 years. To achieve higher ratings, e.g. 100/20, there would be a need to very carefully consider just how modular and broken down the product is such that any one component could be replaced easy.

System Leakage

The last principle is to reduce system leakage. For luminaires and lighting control components the focus needs to be on the electronic components. In the age of LED’s we cannot escape the need for electronics. Unfortunately, the time taken to breakdown a driver, test and re-use some of the components is effectively impractical. Could these components be used for other tasks, I am not sure they can. So we can only look at how to reduce leakage. One solution would be to minimise the number of drivers and their size thus reducing how many components are wasted when the time comes. Does this mean we need to start using 48v LED’s on a dedicated 48v DC lighting circuit? As with the other principles the product could be labelled to show the end of life system leakage e.g. ‘Circular Economy Waste Rating 5’ would indicate 5% of the product cannot be recycled.

Where do we need to be to say the lighting industry is truly part of the circular economy?

If we achieve a true circular economy in the lighting industry then the light fitting will always be a light fitting albeit repaired / improved along the way and perhaps even moved from one project to another. Some sectors seem more geared towards this kind of longevity of product and these include healthcare, education and industrial sites.

However, sectors such as retail and workplace seem less suited as there is a dominant fashionable aspect to the products and the lighting design. Perhaps the answer is for retail and workplace projects is interchangeable bodies with fixed lamp, lens and driver. Maybe it is the skin of a luminaire which is recycled as fashions change but the organs are built to last.

Some in the lighting industry see a shift from ownership to sharing as the right response to meeting the principles of the circular economy. In many ways it does seem to fit with the principle that the circular economy is more about participating than it is about consuming. In the lighting industry this sharing or participating has been termed ‘pay per lumen’. The principle is that the manufacturer undertakes to repair and upgrade the luminaires such that the end user always has the light they need. In return the end user does not own the luminaires and returns them when they no longer need them. The manufacturer retains the asset.

There are some complexities with this model and it is certainly not a model which will work for everyone e.g. what length of lease works for both the manufacturer and their end user? Too long a lease is risky for the end user but is a short lease good enough for the manufacturer to see a suitable financial return? What happens after 5 years if the end user decides they want to lease a different manufacturers lights? Who collects the fittings, who tests the circuits, who makes good the ceiling etc. Do the original lights get sold at auction? Would the next person to lease the lights be happy that they are essentially second hand, one careful owner, low mileage etc. Would the lights need a built in data logger to prove they operated within temperature, voltage and current tolerances etc? How complex is all this getting and is it really making a difference anyway? Could manufacturers simply design, manufacturer and sell better quality products? Obviously there are many that do but they are rarely used on projects as the capital outlay is higher than the cheaper poorer quality units. Does it therefore take legislation to eliminate the poor products out there which are essentially causing this problem in the first place? Or, can we achieve this through education and a desire to build things to last and accept we have to pay a little more for it now in order to secure our future.

There is a huge market out there for the companies and designers who get it right with regards the circular economy. I suspect there will be a good few attempts to find the right answers and that makes for innovative and therefore exciting times ahead.

To find out more about Cundall’s Lighting Design service click here.