The Circular Economy: avoiding the GreenWash

These are difficult times to be a lighting manufacturer; or a lighting distributor; or a lighting agent. You might just say that, if your business is trying to get lighting product into a crowded marketplace . . . it’s a difficult time.

The best way to make sure that your product is visible is to watch the trends – and, hopefully, to be at the front of those trends – and deliver lighting that meets the demands of a very critical marketplace.

And if we add a particular set of circumstances – let’s call it a climate crisis – it makes the positioning of product even more important. A fixture that was absolutely fit for purpose last year may now be considered absolutely the opposite. How did that happen?

This is a handy cut-out-and-keep guide to what makes a Circular Economy luminaire.

What is the Circular Economy trying to achieve?

In an ideal, sustainable, world, nothing ever gets thrown away. Once fixtures and components meet the end of their useful life they should be re-positioned according to whatever residual value they contain, and that process repeated for as many iterations as the material can take the strain. And at the end of all those reincarnations, the material can be recycled and become part of the material resources for future generations of components. Nothing is thrown away . . . because there is no ‘away’.

What constitutes a Circular Economy luminaire?

It’s a luminaire that can be dismantled to its base components; that each of those components can be re-used as they stand (an LED heatsink, for example); exhausted components can be upcycled (use an old LED heatsink as a decorative paperweight) or downcycled (an old LED heatsink becomes a piece of ship’s ballast); if there is nothing else available, the component material is recycled and returned to the materials reservoir.

Does Circular Economy only relate to end of life?

No. Since the invention of the light bulb we have had the basis of an ‘in-service’ Circular Economy, and only the numbers have changed. We have been used to light sources needing replacement after 1000 – 2000 – 8000 – 12000 hours. With the LED we have the same situation, but the numbers are much bigger, with 50,000 becoming a ‘standard’ offering (though beware the growing trend towards lower life LEDs. A sub-20000-hour life is not unusual).

Some manufacturers are looking at the Circular Economy from this standpoint alone – as long as you can replace the LED engine and the associated electronics, that is good enough to get a tick in the Circular Economy box. But it leads the eye away from what else might be happening with those products. Once the fixture is de-commissioned, can it be re-purposed or has the housing been made in such a way that its impossible to recycle the material perhaps it’s a composite of metals and plastics that is not feasible to dismantle. That fixture is only headed to landfill – and that is NOT a circular Economy fixture.

How does a manufacturer honour its commitment to a Circular Economy?

This question is rarely asked, but it lies at the heart of this initiative.

Traditionally, the manufacturer sold a fixture and held its corporate breath for 366 days until the fixtures were outside of their guarantee period. This gave all manufacturers the freedom that they needed to develop generations of fixtures that did not look back at previous versions of fixtures, because we had the crazy idea that ‘LEDs last forever’, so it didn’t matter.

The point of the Circular Economy process is that it only matters once a fixture meets the end of its useful life . . . it’s a case of what happens next.

In order for a luminaire to be re-purposed, the components that make up that fixture still need to available for any number of years after the product leaves the factory. Its something that we understand from the used car market; it’s something that we need to embrace for the lighting market if the Circular Economy is to make any sense.

Who ‘looks after’ the lighting Circular Economy?

Again, this is something that is only just beginning to be talked about. Manufacturers believe that they will be ‘in charge’ of product re-purposing. This is an unrealistic presumption on their part. While its possible for major projects to be supplied under a Light as a Service (LaaS) contract, the overwhelming number of projects will never be considered as an LaaS option. Fixtures will arrive in the marketplace from conventional purchasing routes and the manufacturer will simply lose touch with them.

Re-purposing will only happen if third-party providers are able to access equipment spares and replacements LED engines and electronics. These providers do not exist at the moment – or, to be more accurate, they don’t realise that they are there. But we’ve had maintenance companies looking after lighting for many years. It could be companies like these who make the running with Circular Economy practices.


Assessing a fixture’s Circular Economy credentials:

1. Can the LED array/engine and driver be replaced:

  • A: by the end user
  • B: by a specialist service
  • C: by the manufacturer
  • D: it can’t be replaced

2. Can the new  LED array/engine and driver be re-fitted:

  • A: on site
  • B: at a remote contractor’s workbench
  • C: at the manufacturer’s premises
  • D: it can’t be replaced

3. Can the fixture be dismantled (and reassembled):

  • A: completely, to each individual component
  • B: optics and decorative accessories (bezels, diffusers, etc)
  • C: limited to LED array/engine and driver
  • D: not at all

4. Can the fixture be dismantled (and reassembled):

  • A: using only standard tools
  • B: using a combination of standard and specialist tools?
  • C: using specialist tools only
  • D: not at all

5. Has the manufacturer provided a way of recording the operating hours of the fixture (think of a motor car’s milometer as an analogy)?

  • A: Yes, within the fixture – open access
  • B: Yes, within the fixture – restricted access
  • C: Yes, at a remote data collection point
  • D: Not available

6. Has the manufacturer provided a way to prove the fixture’s provenance (performance data etc)?

  • A: Yes, within the fixture – open access
  • B: Yes, within the fixture – restricted access
  • C: Yes, at a remote data collection point
  • D: Not available

7. Does the fixture have the means by which provenance/performance data can be updated, either by plug-in or by wireless connection?

  • A: Yes, with open access
  • B: Yes, with restricted access only
  • C: Yes, via cloud connection
  • D: Not available

8. Does the manufacturer have a spares regime that will allow replacement over a period of years?

  • A: All components
  • B: Performance components only, LED engine, driver, optical assembly
  • C: LED engine and driver only
  • D: none at all

9. Can all of the materials used in the manufacture of the fixture be recycled and returned to the materials reservoir?

  • A: All materials, including LED engine and driver components
  • B: All materials, except for LED engine and driver components
  • C: All metal components (excluding plastics)
  • D: None at all

10. Does the manufacturer have a strategy for maintaining LED output of earlier generations of LED arrays/engines?

  • A: The manufacturer guarantees photometric performance of replacement LEDs / drivers
  • B: The manufacturer guarantees that non-equivalent replacement LED engines / driver assemblies can be fitted into the luminaire housing, retaining all other components (heatsink etc)
  • C: The manufacturer guarantees that non-equivalent replacement LED engines, heatsink and driver assemblies can be replaced
  • D: There are no guarantees in place

You’re looking for 10 x As. That’s about as good as it gets.

If you end up with 10 x Ds – that’s not a Circular Economy fixture; not in anyone’s view.

If you want to get an overall numerical score, then A=1; B=2; C=3; D=4. The lower the score, the better.

But rather than simply relying on a number, look at where the scores lie. It may be that some aspects of the fixtures credentials are more important than others.

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