If LED lamps last for decades, why are we already recycling them?

When UK lamp recycler Recolight recently reported on the progress it has made gathering the unwanted lamps of Britain, it all seemed like business as usual for the award-winning company.

The UK had just scored as Europe's second largest lamp recycler. Newly minted numbers for 2013 showed it had collected and processed 5,370 tons, behind only Germany's 9,600-plus tons. Five countries, also including France, Spain and Italy had between them recycled 24,000 tons for the year. So London-based Recolight proudly announced in a press release last month that it had played a key role.

'Recolight, the UK’s leading lighting compliance scheme, has contributed significantly to the increase in UK lamp recycling having recycled more lamps, LEDs and luminaires than all other UK schemes combined,' wrote Recolight, a nonprofit company, and a past winner of Materials Recycling World's Recycling and Waste Management Business of the Year award.

But reread that statement closely, and you might ask: Wait a minute - LEDs? Why is Recolight recycling LEDs? LED lamps are supposed to last for 20 or even 30 years, vendors say. Along with energy savings, longevity is one of the main reasons we're all supposed to buy them – to cut way down on maintenance and replacement costs and improve our use of resources. 

So why are we already recycling them when they only reached the general market a few years ago? Are they failing? Are people accidentally breaking them? Are users buying new and improved models and chucking out the not-so-old ones, a bit like some consumers might replace other digital goods like gadgets?

We asked Recolight these questions, and found out that LEDs are only an infinitesimal part of the business.

'The quantity of LED lamps being returned through the lamp waste stream is currently very low – less than 0.1%,' said Nigel Harvey, Recolight CEO, and the 2012 winner of the Lux Person of the Year Award for his pioneering work in recycling.

Phew. That seems to let LEDs off the 'fail early' hook, although as Harvey noted, 'there is a widespread belief that some unbranded LEDs may not perform well.' 

Also, there are far more conventional lamps and CFLs (compact fluorescents) currently in use than there are LEDs, thus the percentage of LEDs should be low in the recycle mix. 

So is it the no-names that make up the 0.1%? Are any big brands also popping prematurely? Are users upgrading?

'We...cannot assess why they are disposed - whether they are product failures, or any other reason,' Harvey said. 'In any event though, the return rate is currently very low.'

On one hand it would thus seem odd to even mention LEDs. But Recolight wants to demonstrate that the company is ready to ride into the future.

'Inevitably, over the next decade, the proportion of LED in the lamp waste stream will start to rise,' Harvey said. 'But it could be as late as 2050 before we get a waste stream that is 100% LED.'

On top of that, it's a reminder to the industry that LED lamps fall under the European Union's 'WEEE' (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) recycling and recovering directive. Even if they don't contain hazardous mercury the way rival CFL energy saver lamps do, they require special end-of-life treatment.

And anyway, as a marketing and branding device, it seems a good idea for anyone in the lighting community, from vendor to user, to associate themselves in some way with LEDs. Even if they have nothing to do with them. Or a tenth of a percent.

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Photo is from Chones via Shutterstock