The Circular Economy – but how will it work?

Lighting manufacturers are rightly embracing the principles of the Circular Economy and we’re looking forward to seeing lots of new product at Frankfurt L+B in March. But what will it mean in practice? More to the point, what difference will it make?

The principle of The Circular Economy

The age-old idea of making a product which is sold, used and then thrown away is wasteful of both energy and material; the energy that it takes to make the product and the material embedded in that product are lost after first use.

The first step to improving on this situation was to improve material re-use via recycling. Old product doesn’t end up on the tip, instead, material is reclaimed, creating a new content stream and reducing the need for virgin material. This is a Good Thing but can still be wasteful of energy – and we really need to reduce our energy usage.

The Circular Economy is aimed at keeping as much material in play for as long as possible. There are two ways that this can work; we can build product where exhausted components are replaceable, and we can develop a market system where its accepted practice that products can have a 2nd, 3rd, nth, iteration before the product becomes unusable. This is what we do with motor cars . . . with old books . . . and we’re starting to see pressure on the clothing industry to promote re-use of clothes (in the UK we throw away in excess of 235 million wearable items every year – The Guardian, from 2017).

Applying the Circular Economy to the lighting industry

The used car market works because nearly all of the components used in a motor car are available as spares. This used to be the way that the lighting market worked. The exhausted components were either the lamp or the control gear – and they could be replaced. The housing just went on and on. But where does that leave the professional LED product?

Define ‘professional’ product? Those luminaires that are designed around an LED engine and an optical system, rather than using an LED lamp (GU10, GLS, etc).

The Circular Economy design principle that we’re expecting to see in Frankfurt will permit luminaires to be taken apart and components replaced; so far so good. What are the circumstances where this might actually happen?

A product that can be disassembled and renovated

Lighting as a Service (LaaS)

LaaS is the corporate view of The Circular Economy. Manufacturers will lease their product to clients and will then retain ownership and maintenance responsibilities. At this level of engagement it is obvious that the ability to replace a failed component is far more effective than having to replace the entire luminaire. Taking back luminaires at the end of the lease period and renovating them at minimum cost is also attractive.

But there are other situations that are far more common . . .

End of useful life

A customer runs an installation until the end of its useful life (however that might be defined). They then go back to the original manufacturer/supplier and ask for an upgrade (a new light source or driver?). Again, replacing components is more efficient/cost effective than replacing entire fixtures. But this scenario relies on the user retaining information on the provenance of the luminaires.

End of required life

Building ownership changes and lighting installations become redundant. Like a motor car, there may be many hours of useful life left in the luminaire. Is there a way for those fixtures to stay in use in a different setting – a second iteration?

Looking at a bigger picture

Its in the broader landscape, to those meadows where LaaS never grazes, that a big question hangs over the usefulness of Circular Economy design. For it to have practical value, and not be the latest phase of GreenWash, we have to work out a system that permits an active – and attractive – used luminaire market. Here are a few thoughts on the matter:

  • Luminaire provenance

Manufacturers can fit every luminaire with a chip that contains all of the data relevant to the product, including its photometric data. The chip can be capable of recording the number of hours that the fixture has been in use. This is important, because – as with a used motor car – a buyer will want to know how hard and how far it’s been driven.

  • Luminaire components

Manufacturers need to make components for luminaires available on the open market for third-party refurbishments. It mustn’t be assumed that these products ever find their way back to the manufacturers’ workbenches.

  • Licenced refurbishers

We’re dealing with electrical products and there are rules about that sort of thing. We also care about active light performance and that will require a competent workforce.
Third-party lighting refurbishers will need to be licenced, in the same way that garages offering MOT inspections are registered.

  • Access to refurbished product

Here’s where the second-hand book market offers a way of working. Courtesy of Amazon, its possible to search for any out-of-print book and probably find it on the shelf of a bookshop somewhere in the world – because there is a sophisticated database of books across the entire second-hand book market.

This needs to be replicated for refurbished luminaires and refurbishing companies will need to develop an internal market that permits products to shift from one company to another.

  • Designers with imagination

It seems inevitable that the kind of luminaires that will make up the refurbished market will be from the higher echelons of product quality. And if that’s the case, then specifiers need to buy-in to the Circular Economy system.

  • Wholesales with imagination

Here’s the choice at the trade counter: you can buy a brand-new fixture – its unproven, untested and unknown, but it’s cheap . . .  or you can buy a second-hand product, properly licenced and with full provenance – and it won’t cost you much more/any more than the brand new one.

  • Manufacturers with imagination

You can only sustain a Circular Economy if the bits and bobs making up a product remain readily available. Lighting manufacturers need to look to their light engines, the footprints of their drivers, the optical components. This is about long-term thinking . . so maybe needing a little less imagination than what we’ve experienced in the past years.

In summary, the Circular Economy in practice needs a dynamic system behind it for it to make any practical sense. LaaS is a nice idea – but it won’t go anywhere close to where the lighting market needs to be in the coming years. A new generation of lighting refurbishers is already among us – we just need to encourage them.

About John Bullock

John Bullock is the editor of The Light Review

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