How LED recycling is changing - and what still needs to happen

As LED technology has improved,  LED lamps are starting to appear everywhere from hospitals to warehouses.  But with the arrival of new lighting technology comes the responsibility to ensure that it doesn't end up in landfill unnecessarily, and that scarce or hazardous materials are recovered.

In Europe, manufacturers are required by law to make sure their products are properly recycled at the end of their lives, which they do by signing up to recycling schemes.

The combination of guidance and recycling schemes that help companies comply in return for a fee has had remarkably positive results. The recycling rate of lamps in the UK has risen from 23 to nearly 53 per cent since 2007, when the European Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) directive came into force. Luminaires are lagging behind, but Recolight, a UK WEEE compliance scheme that specialises in recycling lighting products, dealt with 800 tonnes of luminaires in 2014 and says it has high hopes that the overall UK recycling rate for luminaires will pick up this year.

It’s not a simple task, though. To get recycling rates closer to the ideal 100 per cent, the system must become easier to use. To explore the possibilities for a greener footprint in the lighting industry, Lux and Recolight brought together a group of recycling experts including the head of recycling at Osram, a recycling policy adviser from the Department of Business and Skills and the boss of the UK’s largest WEEE compliance scheme, Repic.

To everyone’s satisfaction, some of the creases in the system have been ironed out already. Previously, some compliance schemes could collect more electrical waste than they needed to, and sell the excess to other schemes that hadn’t recycled enough, charging almost any price they wanted. Now, schemes have the option of paying a fee to the government as an alternative way to meet their obligations, so they can no longer be forced by other schemes to pay inflated prices. As some participants in Lux’s forum rather delicately phrased it, this means that ‘some compliance schemes have had to revisit their business models’. Phil Morton of Repic said this change has been a ‘tremendous benefit’.

Making it easy

If we’re to stop lamps and luminaires ending up in landfill, it’s crucial to get facility managers on board. As Nigel Harvey puts it: ‘No matter how easy you make it to recycle, there is a tendency for people to say: “That’s only one light bulb, it won’t make a difference if I just put it in the bin.” And it might not seem like those individual instances matter, but collectively they do.’

More collection points doesn't necessarily mean more recycling, says Phil Morton of Repic

Even with 3,000 collection points around the country, far too much electrical waste escapes the recycling bins with hazardous substances entering the environment as a result. And filling the country with even more collection points does not seem to be the answer. Harvey said: ‘You get to a point where the law of diminishing returns applies. Putting in more infrastructure might just divert users from the existing infrastructure and make the system more complicated.’

Morton has had similar experience with battery recycling. ‘We’ve tried setting up WEEE collection points but they only diverted people from where they would otherwise have gone,’ he said.

If collection points alone don’t make people recycle, it seems it’s not just a simple question of raising awareness. What we need is behavioural change, but how do you create that?

Some schemes in other European countries offer money in exchange for returning products for recycling. ‘It could be made the responsibility of the retailer to recycle if there was a financial incentive for customers to bring back old light bulbs,’ said lighting designer John Bullock. Harvey pointed out that this is already happening with batteries. Unfortunately, statistics don’t point to guaranteed success, should the UK start such a scheme. ‘It tends to always be around 30 per cent that gets recycled through official channels. In some countries there is a €5 charge when paying for a washing machine which goes to the recycling, but there is no evidence that the washing machines are more likely to be recycled,’ said Morton.

A consistent message might go some way to improving recycling rates. ‘Back in the 1960s, we had the Keep Britain Tidy campaign. It was on the telly all the time telling you, ‘you don’t do this’ and [as a result] I genuinely cannot do those things, I’ve been conditioned,’ said John Bullock. ‘Behavioural change is possible but the message has to be repeated for it to occur.’

Recycling needs to be as easy as possible, says Wiser's Russell Hirst

The sheer inconvenience of recycling is another reason too much electrical equipment ends up in landfill. ‘Some people end up storing recyclable items in their shed for a long time because they do want to recycle it but don’t get around to it,’ said Russell Hirst, managing director of Wiser, another WEEE scheme.

Dexreco, lighting manufacturer Dextra’s own recycling business, found a way to make this inconvenience work for them. ‘Dexreco initially set up its recycling arm as a sales tool – we offer the service of picking up waste and bringing it back to our premises where we take it apart and recycle it,’ said Marc Doble, Dexreco’s assistant manager. ‘Some clients just really aren’t bothered about recycling unless there is a financial incentive for them. But others are starting to come around.’

At manufacturer level, a recent rule change from the Environment Agency that makes it easier to recycle correctly and harder to end up paying too much, might prompt better recycling practice.

Under the WEEE directive, producers of lighting equipment have to report the weight of all the products they place on the market, and specify the category it belongs in. The ‘hazardous waste’ category attracts a higher fee, and although LED luminaires were not considered hazardous, they were until recently dealt with as part of the category that also includes hazardous waste. Manufacturers anxious to comply with the rules would sometimes lump all the weight of LED luminaires and genuinely hazardous waste into the same category, and there are stories of compliance schemes doing the same, charging manufacturers as if all their waste in that category were hazardous instead of helping their client sort their recyclable waste correctly.

This all changed at the end of last year, when new rules from the Environment Agency clarified that LED luminaires belong in a different category with no risk of hazardous associations. The only exception is luminaires with a replaceable light source, in which case only the light source goes into the category with hazardous waste.


Making sense

‘This approach makes sense,’ said Nigel Harvey. ‘It applies to LED luminaires the same logic used where luminaires are supplied containing fluorescent lamps. The weight of the fluorescent lamps and luminaires are reported separately.’

Managing recycling in a time of technological change is tricky, says Osram's Andreas Adam

Andreas Adam, who is in charge of recycling at Osram, pointed out that clarity at both ends of the recycling chain is vital: ‘It’s important to have clear definitions of waste but still make it simple for consumers,’ he said. ‘If we don’t create a good system now, we’ll have a big problem in 10 years when the bulk of the fluorescent lamps have to be recycled.’

With a flood of old luminaires coming up for recycling, compliance schemes are worried about a potential shortage of finance. The way the WEEE system works, a levy on new products pays for the recycling of old ones in the same category. So if sales dry up, or if the types of products being sold change, there may not be enough money to recycle old products as they reach the ends of their lives. ‘Having LEDs in the same categories as gas discharge lamps has prevented that problem – at least it will until 2018,’ said Nigel Harvey.

‘It’s really important that financing is secured,’ agreed Adam. ‘We’re in the middle of a technological change, we are trying to realign current product development with recycling requirements. That includes discussions on a national and European scale – sometimes it feels like an easy task, other times you’re surrounded by lawyers.’

The rapid change in the lighting market makes this a pressing concern for lighting manufacturers. ‘We have a real need for replacement products when halogen gets banned,’ Adam said. ‘For retrofit products we have recycling in place, but it would be good to have ideas about how to make them more recyclable.’

To increase recycling rates, we need to change people's behaviour, says Nigel Harvey of Recolight

If the overall system is difficult to simplify, perhaps it’s time to pay attention to recycling requirements at the design stage. As John Bullock said: ‘We get told that we live in a throwaway society, but part of the reason we get told that is that products are designed that way.’

The silver lining, if you can call it that, is that the lighting industry is insignificant compared with other industries when it comes to letting hazardous waste get away. ‘We’re a tiny little cog in the microelectronics recycling stream,’ as John Bullock phrased it, and there are other, uglier industries out there. ‘The lighting industry has been very active in identifying that it isn’t us. If our compliance rate had been five per cent rather than 50, they would have been asking us different questions,’ said Harvey.

Some claim that despite global warming, polar meltdown, huge CO2 emissions and international disputes over what to do about it, the sheer speed at which new technology is developed could provide a solution to our environmental crisis before it’s too late.

‘Some postulate that the price of materials will become stable because everything will be recycled around, suggested Morton from Repic. ‘If we can get the model right, lighting might become a leased service where the producer places the luminaires and supplies the light.’

John Bullock says the lighting world needs to prepare for the 'circular economy'

‘The material scarcity of the future is a real hazard to commerce, so we need a design philosophy that supports reuse of products so there is no waste, only recovery,’ said John Bullock. Some hazardous products are only hazardous when they get processed, so if you keep reusing them you’ve solved the hazard problem in a different way.’

As for the WEEE compliance schemes, there might come a time when their current services are no longer needed. ‘We might evolve to become facilitators of the supply of materials as part of a circular economy,’ Nigel Harvey said.




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