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Shedding light on the Circular Economy

The Circular Economy is not a new idea. Before we lived in this consumer society where throwing things away is a vital part of the market strategy, it was the norm that all manner of things would be repaired and refurbished many times  before they were finally thrown away. The philosophical puzzle that is My Grandfather’s Spade comes from this other way of being.

The puzzle goes like this: I have inherited my grandfather’s gardening spade. My grandfather bequeathed it to my father, but it has always been known as Grandfather’s Spade. The blade was replaced ten years ago and the shaft and handle were renewed a short time after grandfather’s death. So what is it about this tool that makes it My Grandfather’s Spade, if grandfather never touched any part of it?

The essential nature of The Circular Economy is that every component of every manufactured good may have a limited life, but the complex entity that is the tool goes on through many iterations. We only dispose of those pieces that are worn out or have become obsolete; the conceptual existence of ‘the tool’ continues.

And we know this situation well in lighting. The contract that we as customer have with the lighting manufacturer is a curious one. We accept that the component at the very heart of the fixture will fail, rending the fixture useless – and we don’t complain. Unlike a motor car engine, where failure would be the cause of many moans, the failure of a light source is a cheap thing to replace. We shrug our shoulders and buy a replacement – but we don’t throw away the entire fixture.

Our light fixtures go on for many years. My favourite light fixture (see image) has been with me for over thirty years and has travelled from house to house as I’ve moved around the country. Originally designed to accept a pair of PAR38 lamps, it has also been home to R80 incandescent reflector lamps, CFL reflector lamps and is currently lighting my desktop with two 8W LED GLS sources. The light fixture itself hasn’t changed in those 30 years, but the light has adapted to circumstance.

The Circular Economy (TCE) does not accept the idea that things get thrown away unless there really is no ‘good’ left in them. The philosophy from which TCE springs is the Cradle-to-Cradle approach to design developed by William McDonough and Richard Braungart in their book of that title, focusing on an concept of sustainability which is further developed in a recent work, The Upcycle .

The Circular Economy itself came to public attention in 2013 when Dame Ellen MacArthur addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos and we all experienced the unusual sight of global CEOs coming out enthusiastically in favour of sustainable behaviour. there was, of course, money involved.

The Circular Economy has effectively given Value to Waste. Waste is stuff that we don’t want anymore and we’re happy to throw it into the nearest hole in the ground. But as we run out of other holes in the ground to dig new stuff out of, we’d better look again at the old stuff. Why should a component within a failed product necessarily be waste? That component may have many iterations left in it and its only old practices, that themselves should be binned,  that deny us the opportunity to re-value rather than re-cycle.

The essence of the Circular Economy is that there should be no journey-to-waste. There is also the innate understanding of the solo round-the-world yachtswoman that we carry everything we need with us on our journey, so we’d better not waste it.  Ideally, everything that we make should be re-usable or recyclable. Re-use is preferred to recycle, because recycling requires a hidden energy cost when we return a manufactured component to its raw state, and then even more energy is used to re-process that material back to a working component once again.

And by the way, what’s the Circular Economy judgement on my Grandfather’s Spade? Well, the original blade went back to the blacksmith’s shop to be re-worked into fixing plates for a local barn; the handle and shaft helped to hold up the raspberries in the garden for a few years until finally being sawn up and put on the fire, providing heat the home. The ash, of course, ended up back in the garden, dug into the earth by My Grandfather’s Spade..

If we take a hard look at the lighting industry and its design processes, this is what we currently find:

We’re wasting energy

Because of the need to dissipate heat from the LED module, an LED-based fixture uses far more aluminium than we’ve ever seen before in a luminaire.  The global demand of aluminium is growing at an alarming rate. Incredibly, over 75% of the aluminium that has ever been produced is still in use, it’s that easy to recycle. But because we’re already recycling so much, the increased demand requires new source of bauxite (the ore from which aluminium is extracted) and that means we’re tearing even more out of the ground than ever before.

In 2104 the greatest production came from Australia, China, Brazil, Guinea and India with 85% of the world’s bauxite extraction, some 200 million tonnes between them. Although aluminium is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, it is still an issue as to how we manage its future exploitation. The issue with aluminium is not its rarity, it’s the constant input of energy that’s required with each re-making. So when we send off perfectly good aluminium components for recycling, we’re adding to a global energy demand that is already struggling.

What The Circular Economy says about this

Why should we have to recycle an aluminium heatsink at all? Two problems come to mind:

Firstly, many LED luminaires are manufactured as mono-blocs. The housing is a combination of housing, heatsink and LED module, all in one. The luminaire cannot be broken down, but can only be destroyed as part of the recycling process once the LED or its circuitry fails.

Also, LED module manufacturers are reluctant to commit to a physical pattern for their modules (the Zhaga Consortium is one organisation working to change this, but it’s meeting a lot of resistance from within the industry). As a good heatsink will always be a bespoke device that wraps around a designated LED module this is clearly a problem for any luminaire designer.

The contract that we all accept for our home lighting, whereby a GLS lamp is essentially the same now as it was a hundred years ago, has not transferred – yet – to the LED. And this needs to happen quickly.


Beyond WEEE: Designing for The Circular Economy’ was broadcast on Wednesday 30 March at 1pm BST.
To watch the presentation please click on the promotional logo here.


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