Circular Economy: defining ‘end of life’

The old mind-set of make+use+throw away says quite clearly what ‘end of life’ means. It says that, for whatever reason, the end-user has had enough of whatever it is and has decided to get rid. It’s an attitude that we’re working hard to get away from.

Its also a process where ‘end of life’ doesn’t matter, because it’s just something that happens as a consequence of us deciding that we don’t want something any more . . . like our motor cars and our homes.


Sorry – what was that? Are you crazy?

Exactly. If there are things in our lives that don’t just get thrown away when we’ve finished with them, its our motor cars and the places where we live – our homes. We recognise that these hold residual value even though we’ve finished with them, so we’ve created markets for trading things that are no longer of any interest to us (other than the money). All it took was for us to agree on which things carry residual value that could then be realised.

Like light fittings?

Exactly. We’ve always disposed of old light fittings when we’ve had enough of them. But the LED fundamentally altered the concept of ‘end of life’. Its one thing to throw away a luminaire when it has done the job that we’ve been asking of it – its something else to dispose of a fixture just because the electronics are worn out.

Before the LED it would have been thought ludicrous to trash a fixture because the lamp had failed and this present situation needs to change. Work is in hand currently in the EU – and, we hope, in post-Brexit UK – to alter our perception of what is sustainable product design. Embedded LEDs in luminaires should be the exception, not the rule. LED sources and their supporting electronics should be replaceable. Luminaire bodies should be capable of many years of practical service – well beyond the lifetime figures given in manufacturers’ datasheets.

And that means that we need to look carefully at what we mean by ‘end of life’:

Let’s look at a few examples of that point when a luminaire is no longer wanted.

  1. The luminaires that never leave the warehouse.
    They are ‘old stock’, have been replaced by a later generation of the same thing. Perhaps they were made for a special project that never happened.
    But they are, in essence, brand new – just not wanted.
  2. The luminaires were installed a month ago – and are now being taken out . . .  thanks to a new design concept. It happens!
    Definitely not new, but with their entire working life ahead of them.
  3. The luminaires have been in service for five years, say. The building needs to be freshened up for whatever reason. The in-use figures suggest that there is still 50% of the active life-term available in the fixture.
    This is a new situation, brought to us courtesy of the LED. When we buy LED luminaires we are ‘paying forward’, by investing in longevity.
    This is where true ‘residual value’ sits.
  4. The luminaires have reached the end of their planned life – but they are still working.
    And it may be that the actual performance matches the test results and the L70/L80/L90 figures have been arrived at. But we’re seeing more examples of LED luminaires far outlasting their estimated life term: L70 at 50,000 hours is looking more like L90 at 50,000 hours – and that means plenty of life still to go (drivers might be shot, though)
  5. The luminaires are well beyond their lifeterm, the electronics are exhausted, but the luminaire body is still in fine fettle.
    Time to tidy up the body, consider a re-spray and replace all the exhausted parts. And then back into the marketplace.
  6. The fixing springs are rusted, the diffusers are brittle and the body’s warped.
    OK – maybe time to put the poor beast out of it misery.

With the exception of that last example, ‘end of life’ is clearly a misnomer. There is no ‘end of life’ here, just a new opportunity waiting to be realised.

If we can re-set our attitude to used equipment, then we can embrace an entirely new way of working with manufactured product. We can set new ground rules about what kind of intervention is needed to refurbish luminaires for re-sale, perhaps creating a cross between an MOT and Evidence of Provenance – just as we have on our motor vehicles.

This is just a start and there’s a lot of thinking yet to be done. But we need to be thinking NOW about a market structure that may not appear for years yet.

  • Luminaire design needs to be fit for that future purpose;
  • access to replacement components needs to be created;
  • light sources need to be standardised;
  • luminaires need to be fitted with information software so that they can be interrogated on their working life (call it a horometer, if you like. It’s already a real word.)


I’ve been working pro bono with an architect on a social project in Poole and have engaged with the Re:Lit initiative created by Michael Grubb Studio. I asked Stuart Alexander of MGS to give me his view on the current situation, where fully-functional luminaires are being disposed of every day.

“In the modern world of the 21st century, at the end of 2020, we find ourselves totally interconnected with everyone else at the hit of a button. And yet we end up in a situation where light fittings containing complex components and vital materials travel around the world, more than most people will in their entire lifetimes. And those materials are being mined from almost every continent on the planet. Not all of them have reliable reserves left in the ground.

Some of those fixtures will never be turned on; they’ll go straight to landfill or recycling. And all because the project got cancelled and we couldn’t find someone to store, use or take the fittings and find a better purpose for them? 

In a time when project budgets and value engineering create huge demand and swell, I find it in-human and difficult to accept. We should be able to do better – we should have had these systems in place for this kind of intervention.

But instead it will become waste.

You read it today and you think it’s atrocious – just imagine what they’ll think in ten years time.

We need to find a way that is quick for everyone to move this type of thing around for the better – so people in 100 years do it without even thinking. It’s our human responsibility to care about this stuff. We took it out of this planet and we did it for ourselves, now we’re dumping it . . . it’s time for a change.”


The next Recolight panel discussion will be on Tuesday 1st December and we’ll talking about End of Life luminaire and taking our responsibilities seriously. I’m happy to be a part of that discussion and I hope to see you there.


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