Flemmich Webb writes for Guardian Professional about the innovative efforts underway to redesign LED lighting in order to improve how they can be recycled. LED bulbs are hard to recycle but using Wi-Fi to connect them with a supplier could solve the problem.
Light bulb moment: redesigning LEDs for recyclability
LED bulbs are hard to recycle but using Wi-Fi to connect them with a supplier could solve the problem
Light bulbs are among those everyday household and workplace products that seem so inconsequential yet are vital for commerce and leisure. They are easy to replace and relatively cheap to buy.
Over the past few years, they have undergone a radical redesign. We have moved from the simple, yet inefficient incandescent light bulbs (as of August last year, these have been banned from sale in the EU) to low energy bulbs and, increasingly, to more expensive but more efficient and longer-lasting, light-emitting diode (LED) bulbs.
The challenge regarding the latter is how to recycle the component parts once they come to end of their operational life, namely reclaiming the “critical materials” – rare raw materials – used within the bulbs, such as gallium and indium.
“Light bulbs fall into that category of electrical product that are small enough for people to throw them away rather than recycle them,” says Rich Gilbert, co-founder of the Agency of Design (AoD).
“It feels like an inappropriate amount of effort to take them to your local refuse site or electronics drop-off points. That’s not true of products such as washing machines, fridges or TVs, so we want to create a closed loop system that’s smart enough to take account of people’s behaviour.”
The AoD recently received £25,000 from TSB to produce a feasibility study looking at how the LED light bulb (and future lighting technologies) could be redesigned to reduce dependency on critical materials and make it easier to recycle and reuse.
“We want to move away from the existing collective model of electronics recycling, which isn’t very effective because so many products miss the system. Also, because there are so many different products those that do get collected can produce poor quality material outputs,” says Gilbert.
To this end, the AoD intends to focus on developing a product with a pre-designed take-back procedure whereby it goes back to a manufacturer or refurbisher without getting caught up in a collective system. This means the system should capture 100% of the products and ensure it yields high-quality recycled materials that can then be reused.
“At the moment there is no motivation for companies to make their products easier to recycle because there is no benefit for them. As soon as the company takes the product back itself then all those motivations happen naturally,” he says.
Gilbert stresses that the feasibility plan is in its early stages so AoD hasn’t worked out the final direction yet, but ideas under discussion include creating a connected light bulb (one that’s linked to the user’s Wi-Fi network), which could inform the supplier and user of usage patterns as well as the bulb’s impending failure. This would allow the supplier to send a pre-emptive replacement and collect the old bulb, making it much easier to recover materials for recycling.
Elements of this model exist elsewhere: Philips makes a connected LED light bulb – hue – that allows users to control their lighting with a tablet or smartphone; Interface makes carpet tiles, collects them from customers at the end of their life, then recycles them to make new tiles; Wales-based Orangebox has a take-back scheme for its office furniture. But none combine all the elements.
“We are designing both the product and the recycling system at the same time,” says Gilbert. “Ideas about the system will inform the product design, and vice versa.”
One idea is a service rather than an ownership-based model. This could mean that instead of customers buying light bulbs, they pay a monthly or annual fee that entitles them to, say, a number of bulbs, free replacements, usage data, software updates and a take-back service.
“The approach of our project should be flexible enough to withstand other future lighting technologies coming along. Although the LED is the important bit, it’s as much about the system of how to get the product back as it is about the product itself,” he says.
Gilbert and the team are off to Belgium shortly to visit Umicore7 – experts in component recycling – and will then sit down to write the feasibility study by mid-July.
“If we conclude that this redesign of the LED light bulb and the service model around it is feasible, we’ll work with the best production partner and secure funding for the next stage,” says Gilbert.
AoD has put about £8,000 of its own money into the feasibility study phase and seems confident it is on to something. Indeed, if it can demonstrate that circular economy principles can be applied to a product as ubiquitous as a light bulb, the impact on the design of other everyday consumer goods would be profound.