Six ways the lighting industry could be more sustainable

These days, every lighting company likes to push its eco credentials. But how can the industry really improve its sustainability, beyond adding leaves to company logos? Robert Bain finds out.


1. Manage raw materials better

The rise of modern electronics has driven a huge increase in the extraction and processing of all sorts of strange metals that are needed for semiconductor products, including LEDs.

Although each LED itself is minuscule, we’re manufacturing billions of the things. Lux contributor and lighting sustainability expert John Bullock says: ‘Demand for arsenic, gallium, indium and rare earth elements has accelerated at an unprecedented rate, to the extent that the global reserves of some of these elements is already a concern.’

For instance, one of the most common types of LED chip is based on the semiconducting material InGaN, containing indium, which is already on the ‘at risk’ register, with only 20 years’ worth of reserves.

In future, these metals may not be there to extract. And although it’s reckoned that 95 per cent of an LED can be recycled, there’s less certainty about how. Separating out all those metals to the levels of purity needed in the semiconductor manufacturing is not a simple business – or a clean one. We may not still be around when the arsenic and lead embedded in LED construction leaches into soil and groundwater, but someone will.


2. Make controls easy

Controls are set to be lighting’s next big success story, but it’s still more common to see controls failing than succeeding. The number of lights left needlessly burning in Britain’s streets, shops and offices at night is heartbreaking. Even where controls systems exist, users often can’t get them to work.

Controls have just got to get easier, rail lighting professionals said at Lux’s recent conference. Network Rail’s Terry Denyer said: ‘The first time the lights don’t work the way the person on site expects, that’s when they get overridden.’

Lighting designer Dominic Meyrick of Hoare Lea has made himself something of an expert in controls, including developing the system for Hoare Lea’s new office in North London. To make it simple and easy, he says, meant a lot of hard work behind the scenes. ‘Traditionally with a luminaire purchase, if you had £100,000 for example, you’d spend maybe £90,000 on luminaires and £10,000 on control. Here we spent that £90,000 on luminaires but we spent about £25,000 on controls.’

‘The user interface is key to good lighting control,’ says Meyrick, who devised an image-based interface to represent the different lighting ‘scenes’ available in Hoare Lea’s meeting rooms. ‘We spent two and a half years developing the interface – that’s a hell of a lot of effort by a lot of people. But that’s what you’ve got to do.’


3. Recycle more

When it comes to recycling, the lighting industry has done a lot to up its game in the last few years. In 2013 the proportion of lamps that get recycled in the UK passed 50 per cent, meaning less and less mercury is ending up in landfill. Luminaire recycling is harder to track because so many are lumped in with general scrap metal instead of being dealt with properly as waste electronic equipment, but recycling rates are rising. Nigel Harvey of Recolight says: ‘To further increase recycling rates in the lighting industry, all lighting producers should finance their share of the recycling of business lamps and luminaires – and more luminaires should be properly recycled as WEEE.’

Peter Hunt of Lumicom says the move to LED lighting offers an opportunity to do better at recycling. ‘Odd as it may seem at first given how much smaller LEDs are than earlier technologies, the move towards LEDs actually increases the use of more expensive raw materials such as cast aluminium in lighting products whether they be retrofit lamps or luminaires,’ Hunt told Lux. ‘This makes the scrap value of the products at the end of their life more attractive to recyclers and in itself will ensure that more lighting is recycled. By incorporating higher quality raw materials manufacturers can produce a better quality product which is likely to last longer while being a valuable resource at the end of its life.’


4. Use less light

As lighting gets more efficient, are we using less energy for it? Yes… and no. Unfortunately, humankind suffers from something known as the Jevons Paradox: when we learn to use a resource more efficiently, we don’t use less of it, we use more. We’ve started using LEDs whever we can – regardless of whether we should. The flashing reindeer on the front of the house, the LED strip above the bookcase, the lights built into the bar top…  There’s no point talking about ‘low-energy lighting’ if the alternative was to not have any new lighting at all.

As Lux contributor and lighting sustainability expert John Bullock puts it: ‘The world of lighting has done very well for itself in reducing the amount of energy it takes to make a lumen of light, but we have no sense of what it will take to organise a net reduction in lumen consumption.’


5. Offer lighting as a service

What if you didn’t have to buy any lights at all, and you could just pay for the light you use? This is the idea behind lighting-as-a-service, also known as pay-per-lux.

It’s a model that’s been pioneered by Philips, who, in exchange for a regular fee, will handle customers’ entire lighting service, including design, equipment, installation, maintenance and upgrades. The National Union of Students was one of the first customers to sign up for a pay-per-lux deal, along with metro system in Washington DC and Rau architects in the Netherlands and the UK’s National Union of Students.

Earlier this year Fortune magazine has named Philips CEO Frans van Houten as one of the world’s 25 top ‘eco-innovators’, in recognition of Philips’ use of pay-per-lux models.

The pay-per-lux system is one of a range of services that Philips now offers through its Philips Lighting Capital division, with the aim of helping clients to overcome the upfront costs associated with installing energy-saving lighting.

Not only does this approach encourage the uptake of energy-saving technology, it also puts the onus on the supplier to make sure that the equipment is as efficient as possible, and to plan for its whole life rather than taking a ‘fit and forget’ approach.


6. Manage obsolescence

It’s one of the lighting industry’s dirty secrets that a huge amount of luminaires end up in skips.

Office fitouts are notorious for installing bog-standard 600x600mm fittings so the place looks respectable enough to get leased, then having it all torn out and replaced when the tenant arrives with their vision of how the place should actually look.

The speed of product development in the era of LED lighting also means that perfectly good products quickly become obsolete and end up gathering dust on manufacturers’ shelves.

The industry doesn’t have a solution to this yet, but lighting design practice Michael Grubb Studio has launched a charitable scheme that’s a step in the right direction.

The Re:Lit initiative takes unwanted luminaires and gives them a new life on pro bono community projects – the first of which was the Shelley Theatre in Boscombe (pictured, left), now home to a beautiful new lighting scheme cobbled together from unused kit donated by manufacturers. Applications are now being taken for Re:Lit’s next project (find out more at

Grubb says the response from both manufacturers and lighting designers has been ‘fantastic’, and is delighted with the results of the Shelley Theatre project.

‘It’s nice to see our peers embracing it, says Grubb. ‘It’s changed the way we work as a company and has had lots of added benefits that we weren’t really expecting. We’re trying to recycle, save the planet and make a point, and there’s an educational side to it too.’

Grubb sees Re:Lit partly as a way to give back to an industry that has been good to him. But the fact that everyone who works on Re:Lit does so purely for the love, puts limits what can be done, and Grubb sees it as an idea that could grow to become a larger operation, or a more established way of manufacturers and designers working together – given the right resources and backing.