Recycling isn’t always the right answer

It might seem strange for the CEO of a recycling scheme to argue that recycling is not always the right approach.  But to achieve the best environmental outcome for a more circular economy, reducing the amount of waste, and re-using equipment already in service, should both be prioritised over recycling.  Reducing and re-use both retain more of the embedded value and carbon footprint of a product, rather than recycling which generally breaks a product down into raw materials from which new products can then be made.  That is why the “Reduce, Re-use, Recycle” mantra should be regarded as a hierarchy, and not simply a list of co-equal alternatives.

But making this happen in the middle of the LED transformation that is driving the lighting industry is not so easy. That is because upgrading traditional technologies to LED is often not feasible.

So what options are open to lighting producers, and end users, who want to embrace the circular economy?

  • Fluorescent tubes and other mercury containing lamps such as compact fluorescents, and sodium lamps should be recycled.  Re-use is not an option. 
  • Traditional luminaires specifically designed for use with fluorescent tubes should also be recycled.  In virtually all cases, it will not be possible to convert them to LED, although installing retrofit T8 LED tubes rather than replacing fittings is a way to extend life, and so reduce the amount of waste arising. 
  • Integrated LED luminaires are not yet entering the waste stream in significant quantities, but are clearly being put into service in large numbers.  It goes without saying that installing LED technologies, with their lower energy consumption and greater lifetime, should support a circular economy. Manufacturers of such equipment can embrace circular economy principles by designing LED luminaires that are upgradeable, and repairable.  Adopting such a modular approach, for example by including end-user replaceable LED modules/drivers, has the potential to further extend the life of the finished product, avoiding disposal of a complete unit if only one sub-assembly fails.  That ticks the “reduce” and “re-use” boxes – without needing to resort to recycling. 
  • LED lamps are generally not recyclable.  Whilst there have been a few which have been designed to be repairable, they are not widely available.  Recycling therefore remains the best option when LED lamps reach end of life.  Furthermore, some business end users, and many consumers, have difficulty in distinguishing LED lamps from mercury containing gas discharge lamps.  As a result, it is best practice to place waste LED lamps in the same container as fluorescent lamps.
  • Lighting as a service, a business model in which products are leased rather than sold, can facilitate the move towards a circular economy.  This is because the original manufacturer can retain ownership of the equipment.  And that means product which reaches end of life can be returned to the original producer for possible upgrade and repair – with recycling only a fall-back when such alternatives are not possible.

Over time therefore, as LEDification comes of age, there will be greater opportunities for upgrade and repair to extend product life, rather than simply relying on recycling.

Nigel sets the scene here for a season of content that will discuss the ways that the lighting industry can shift successfully towards a Circular Economy, engaging the principles of reduce, re-use, recycle for lighting product.

We’ll keep this conversation going through to the end of 2019 and as far as the doors opening at Frankfurt Licht+Bild in March next year, at which point we’re looking forward to some VERY interesting conversations with manufacturers about their product design and sustainability goals.

And here are some inspiring words from Gail Wilson-Giarratano, Executive Director of City Year Inc. Columbia SC and the owner of Anchor Shred & Recycle Co. LLC, from her TEDx talk from 2017: The Tao of Reduce Re-use Recycle.

About Nigel Harvey

Nigel has worked in the Product Compliance Industry since 1990 in a variety of senior management roles covering marketing, business development, and operational management. Nigel joined Recolight as Chief Executive and Company Secretary in 2009. He is very active in both the lighting and WEEE sector.

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