Google the term ‘circular economy’ and you’ll bring up millions of hits. The term covers a wide range of activities that move us away from a traditional, or linear, economy, where products are made, used, and then disposed of. In a circular economy, resources are kept in use for as long as possible, and then recovered for re-use to make new products. It’s about closing the loop on resources.
A more circular economy is widely recognised as essential if manufacturing is to be sustainable – and if businesses are to remain competitive as demand for resources rises, and energy costs increase. Take the example of aluminium. Not only is it a finite resource, but its extraction is very energy intensive, and it is commonly mined in politically unstable countries. That makes it vulnerable on several levels. A circular approach could help take the risk out of this situation.
So what does a circular economy mean for the lighting industry? It is not just about making energy-efficient products – we already do that well, but that is not enough. We also need to look at how we make our products, and what happens to them when they reach the end of their life. For a truly sustainable lighting industry we need to consider:
- How can this help my customer? This is perhaps the most important question. Something that works better for the customer is often more ‘circular’. That’s because it is more convenient for them, for example by solving a waste disposal problem for them. Many of the most successful approaches to the circular economy get supported because commercial teams see that the focus is on the customer benefit.
- Design products that are modular, adaptable or upgradeable. Avoid the fully integrated LED luminaire that would have to be discarded if a single component fails.
- Business models where the original manufacturer retains ownership of products (e.g. pay per lumen) facilitate re-use and recycling when fittings are upgraded at contract end. This helps avoid the one-way consumption associated with a linear economy.
- Engage with suppliers and customers. Ask customers what they currently do to dispose of waste lamps and luminaires when they buy new. The best circular approaches are often ones that involve multiple parts of the supply chain. Plus there is the spin-off benefit of enhanced business relationships.
- Consider how products might be upcycled rather than just recycled. Recycling tends to break products down into their raw materials, often of lesser quality. Upcycling is about re-fashioning or re-purposing a product into something new. That applies particularly to old fittings being removed in large-scale LED luminaire rollouts. Can they be made available to an organisation that might be able to re-use them, or use them in different way? Repair, reconditioning, and re-use will always retain more embedded value than recycling. For an off-the-wall example of upcycling in the lighting industry, take a look at the Rag and Bone Man’s website.
- Consider re-use of components when taking back used products. For example BCS Luminaires, a member of the Recolight recycling scheme, takes back waste bulkhead luminaires from some of its customers. It then re-uses the glass covers and aluminium bases in the manufacture of new LED luminaires. That is a great example of good environmental practice.
- Assess the recyclability of materials used in new products. Which can be recycled, and which materials should be phased out? Do you combine materials (e.g. plastics and metals) in such a way that it reduces the recyclability of both?
- Consider the source of materials used in new products. Increase the use of materials derived from recycled sources, and reduce dependence on virgin sources. The benefit is two-fold. Not only is the company not using raw materials, but also, by purchasing recycled materials, that helps to make the economics of recycling itself more sustainable. (If a material is recycled, but producers do not use the recycled materials, the value of recycling disappears.) For those who might be concerned by the use of recycled plastics, Wrap (the government-funded Waste Resources Action Programme) have done some excellent work using Indesit as a case study to show that recycled plastics can be reliably used in high-end products. Also check out the work being done on resource efficient business models at www.rebus.eu.com.
- It is no longer sufficient to take the view that using recycled cardboard in product packaging means that you have ‘ticked the green box’.
- Commit to supporting the collection of waste lamps and luminaires by joining a WEEE compliance scheme that provides your customers with a recycling solution – and not one that just expects business end users to manage the process themselves.
- Start to use, or increase the proportion of energy factories use from renewable sources. Set targets to reduce the waste the factory produces, and to increase the proportion that gets reused or recycled.
- And finally, shout about your success. Customers like to buy from companies with a strong environmental track record.
The lighting industry is quite rightly proud of the huge impact we can have on our customers’ energy consumption. We think of ourselves as a green, clean sector. So extending our adoption of some of the principles of the circular economy should be strongly aligned with the way our customers already see us. Sounds like positive feedback?
Clearly the lighting sector is not subject to fashion in the same way as consumer electronics, where products are frequently discarded simply because a newer model is available. Our products are made to last, and our customers expect them to last. But nevertheless there are important elements in circular economy thinking that will make our industry more sustainable.
The European Commission and national governments across Europe are actively considering the circular economy. In the next few years, we will see changes in product and environmental standards and regulations intended to embed circular economy thinking.
Creating circular systems isn’t free. To justify investment and change, manufacturers need to understand the environmental impacts and supply concerns which give rise to insecurity, and how circular systems can reduce them. But in the long term, acting now might just make the difference between flourishing and perishing.
- Want to find out more? Recolight can help with questions related to compliance with regulations on WEEE (Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment) for all lighting equipment. For wider questions, the best place to start is probably to check the relevant pages of the Wrap website, or ellenmacarthurfoundation.org
Nigel Harvey is CEO of Recolight, the UK’s leading WEEE lighting compliance scheme.
He was named Lux Person of the Year in 2012
- Lux Review is hosting a seminar titled ‘Beyond WEEE: Designing for The Circular Economy’. It will take place on Wednesday 30 March at 1pm BST and is free if you register here.
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