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Creating a Sustainable Light – a Measured Response

Creating a Sustainable Light – a Measured Response

By E Kinnersley

The greatest recent discovery in archaeology is not a forgotten tomb, the key to a forgotten language, or anything the Ancient Aliens conspiracy theory types will rob of all context to mislead people for tv ratings; it’s asking a local what they think about it.

Find a 4,000-year-old barn with a ring of bricks only one brick high in the middle?

“Baby chicks can’t jump that high, while the hens can still move freely,” answers the farmer in the nearest village.

All the knives in an Incan dig site are placed on the house’s rafters?

“Kids can’t get to them,” a Quechua mother down the road will tell you.

Where does this fit into lighting and the environment?
Well, on the 28th of October this year; Recolight, a lamp recycler in the UK, ran a 90-minute stream featuring two talks, a panel discussion, and a Q&A session – watch the whole thing here – but these experts in the field missed a few things they might not have if they just asked anyone who works in the actual field installing and commissioning lighting. Allow me to enumerate a few of my own thoughts from watching the video.

Serviceability is sustainability
I will offer some credit to the presentation’s organizers for including NAILD’s celebrity guest star/loudmouth Michael Colligan, who still seems to find time to plan lighting retrofit projects in between his gig as an internet attention-seeker and his little soapbox podcast Get a Grip on Lighting. He managed to point out something that hasn’t really been mentioned by regulators or environmentalists: this industry used to make equipment that was viable and easily repairable for decades.

In the last decade, many millions of 15- to 50-year-old 2×4-foot recessed troffers have been ripped out to be replaced with LED flat panels. Many of these fixtures bear the retrofit scars from when they were converted from T12 to T8 fluorescent and some from T8 to T5 and others from T8 and T5 to TLEDs. Fixtures like these have been in operation for decades and some for half a century or more.

When lighting is paid for as a capital expense, the minimum amortization period in the GAAP principles is 25 years, it can be up to 40 years. The LED conversation is all about lumens-per-watt tech, energy savings, and the promise that the fixtures will never burn out. But all of us industry insiders know that while the light source might outlast two or three fluorescent tube cycles, there is no way it will be in service for more than 10 years in any serious lighting application.

So, the accountants and people who have more than two decades in the lighting industry know what’s up but those on the Recolight panel seemed to think that this was a problem that has always existed. The tragic fact is that the race for lumens-per-watt at the lowest China price has led to fixtures that become e-waste as soon as any single component in the unit craps out. We have traded a minor increase in average light source lifetime for a drastic reduction in the life cycle of the asset.

Sure, trillions of kilowatt-hours have been saved but we are looking at a monster pile of e-waste trash in the coming years.  This is robbing Peter to pay Paul, people. When you break the environmental benefit down to brass tacks.

Recycling is bull$#7!
Mostly. Assuming we can all agree on what recycling actually means.

When it comes to legacy lamps, “recycling” is usually a code word for mercury recovery and storage. With legacy fixtures, scrap metal has cash value, but the glass is usually crushed and sprayed over landfills so that wildlife doesn’t pick at the garbage. That type of landfilling is categorized as recycling and has been given the cute name of beneficial reuse. But the makers of lighting don’t use much glass, copper, and aluminum anymore, the weight of durable materials drives the cost of trans-pacific freight too high. So, we use more and more plastic.

You can sort plastic into a nice little bin and it goes away in a nice blue truck and we all feel good about it. But 90% of it gets crushed into cubes, shipped to Somewhere Else, where it gets buried or burned unsafely. No producer wants anything but virgin material and it’s just too easy to make it a “Somewhere Else, Someone Else Problem”.

And what about all the e-waste? Legacy lighting fixtures were made with materials that had a relatively high scrap value at end of life.  LEDs are at best worthless, or they cost money to dispose of responsibly, on the off-chance it does happen.

The circular economy isn’t circular
It’s more like a spirograph. Loop after loop, never quite overlapping. Every loop takes energy, time, and resources.

Recolight has just started a program that aims to divert some of the components they bring for refurbishment rather than recycling, but this takes time and personnel to sort that out. All of that costs money. And when is the last time you heard of anyone buying a refurbished TV let alone scratched and dinged refurbished lights?

A proposal was made that manufacturers should be responsible for continually updating their own, leased equipment in the field as improvements are made. But what of a change of use to the space? Or the coming avalanche which is the health effects of electric light or dark sky requirements? And do manufacturers of light fixtures have any interest in doing this at all?

The circular economy strikes the informed technician as laughable.

Legislation is not the answer
“You can’t legislate good behavior.”

“Policy solutions are closing the barn door after the horse is out.”

“Political solutions are beholden to the politics of the day more than they are to good sense.”

Insert your truism here, but anything that comes from the DoE, Congress, or an individual state body will be clumsy, crude, shortsighted, and too re-written by lobbyists to be of any real use.

There’s no business sense to breaking the current plan
As far as the manufacturers are concerned there isn’t any incentive to do better. Grab a bunch of chips from China, slap ‘em on a board, hit the right lumens-per-watt and life expectancy numbers in the lab, and the DLC sticker does all the sales work because the utility incentive taps aren’t ever gonna close.

Hell, in a few more generations of replacing LED lighting we’ll see clients start to like it. It’s a great excuse to renovate, fixtures are a fashion now; every five and half years you can create a new look, and look at how our new lights help you sleep better at night. Heck, maybe they’ll even invent some light that increases your libido, grows your hair back, or fixes your macular degeneration. And the DLC and the utilities have cooked up a whole new set of rebates to take the sting out of the fact that you just generated a pile of junk that will quickly be “Somewhere Else and Someone Else’s Problem”.

Go back to the way things used to be
I’m trying not to be a downer; I am trying not to be rude to the webinar’s guests and, believe me, I hate to admit that Colligan’s right. But it’s time to go back to the way things used to be. We are at once the most informed and most deceived populace in history, and we can’t be experts. No matter how well-intentioned, their fixes forget the perspective from boots-on-the-ground field practitioners.

Again, I spend most of my work week in the weeds of lighting projects and I know what I would like to see:

  • Immediately standardize all mechanical form factors for light fixtures by application and type.
  • Open access to third parties to immediately enter the replacement parts market so that fixtures can be repaired in the field with parts that are available over the counter at lighting and electrical distribution stores.
  • Certifications and incentives that value products with standardized, cross manufacturer replaceable components.

It’s good that we are talking about the problems our industry faces, but everyone needs a voice, not just the complainers, lobbyists, and academics. Solutions will come from being able to reach out to regulators and do what is best for illuminating the built environment in responsible ways. Go back to the way things used to be in the pre-LED boom era. The people that make this industry work, the people that have real stakes in lighting – members of NALMCO, NEMA, NAED, NAILD, and NEMRA must stand up to the big guys and demand better for us all. Finally, the ivory tower crowd must stop thinking of these folks as people that need to be told what to do and start getting them to the table and listening to them intently.


E Kinnersley has worked as an independent technology and policy commentator for the past years and has recently turned to work as a marketing consultant for the lighting and electrical industries.

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Discussion (1 comments)

    James December 8, 2021 / 9:13 pm

    Is E Kinnersley an anonymous name for Ebenezer Kinnersley who helped invent lightbulbs?

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