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Learning From the Past to Improve the Future

Lighting can be sustainable, it just takes people making it to stand together.

Greta Smetoniute, our Project Designer and Matt Waugh, our Senior Designer have taken on their own side project to identify the amount of embodied energy that goes into producing luminaires, with the objective of trying to fully understand the potential of producing a 100% sustainable product.

The research and findings were presented at the Professional Lighting Design Convention (PLDC) in Singapore, in October 2018.

Everything Has a Start

Greta and Matt started by physically deconstructing a spotlight and its many components to understand what materials and level of complexity were contained within.

They then traced the origins of these components and the journey they undertook from source to delivering the final product to site. It was not a straightforward process.

Greta explains “We conducted our own survey with manufacturers to establish how and where lighting products were manufactured. This enabled us to recognise logistical data, break things down and highlight the true sustainability of products. For instance, one LED driver represented a total of 173 components that are sourced from all over the globe.”

“Current practices are damaging the environment at an alarming rate,” claimed Matt. “Plastic pollution and aluminium production is killing ecologies around the world and natural resources are being quickly depleted.”

“LED has been praised for efficacies and energy savings but this is not resolving what is a much larger problem, this is only reducing social guilt. We are depleting what is around us. We are all responsible.”

Looking at how components travel around the world to reach their final destinations, this is a story of distance. Tracking the reflectors, lenses, drivers, enclosures, LED modules, the mileage quickly adds up to a five-figure digit. This is a huge and unnecessary amount of embodied energy!

The impact of material origins to the final location is significant. Based on one spotlight delivered to one final location, from one manufacturer, the total distance traveled was 48,150km with a total CO2 output of 0.64t.

This presents the reason why we need to act.

To reduce the colossal distances traveled for a multitude of new components, there is the ability to become more resourceful to reuse and repurpose.

It can be done. We began this ethos with the Re:Lit Project which has been in place since 2014. This takes surplus, but fully functioning lighting equipment that would otherwise be sent to landfill and integrates them within exciting new projects. 

What We Need to Look At

Greta & Matt’s approach relates to upcycling, redesigning and implementing processes for localised luminaire selection and manufacturing in more sustainable ways.

This means adopting a Circular Economy model. As romantic as it may sound, within the Lighting Industry we aim to promote the use of components to the maximum extent of their ability and value. When these no longer work, it is time to simply recycle or repurpose them. Too many working luminaires reside in landfill sites, which is shocking.

Addressing The Future

In the longer term, the focus has to be on collaboration.

Today, we have teams working individually to manufacture products, design lighting projects and working for initiatives aiming to recycle. We need to combine our resources to solve this problem together and adopting a circular economy model.

The future comes down to accepting responsibility. Designers, Manufacturers and Industry associations need to provide a platform to guide the individual teams and segments of businesses within the lighting profession and help them to collaborate.

Can We Walk The Walk?

Sharing the issues at international events such as PLDC, in Singapore, provides a wider platform. However, no one cares what you know, until you can show that you care.

Rather than just research and highlighting a serious issue, to make a small dent you have to be proactive.

Matt highlights that making a stand is embedded within Michael Grubb Studio, “When working with project managers, we do ask what their intentions are for lighting equipment at the end of a project. We talk to clients about reusing, rather than disposing. This can help businesses form closer bonds with project teams and clients.”

“There is perhaps too much of the pursuit for the new. For instance, working with Arts University Bournemouth (AUB) on their new lighting scheme, this involved reconfiguring past installations by others and reusing existing luminaries where possible.”

As a lighting design consultancy, we have to be responsible. We know we have to walk the walk. Change comes from adapting behaviour. Greta says, “Many manufacturers claim their luminaires are ‘efficient and sustainable’, but this only disguises the truth, we are all wasteful.”

Greta highlighted a potential short-term solution, “Manufacturers could localise production from within their geographic region. For instance, one European manufacturer supplies to Europe and an Asian manufacture supplies to Asia. We need to change the way we approach the design of new projects and look into reusing any existing luminaires.”

Change Is Happening

Greta explains, “We have already had discussions with manufacturers and designers. We want to be in a place where we effectively encourage others to collaborate and create a spotlight that adopts the circular economy model. By being visible and connecting others, the web of collaborating is a very real and inspiring movement.

It is the designers’ responsibility to influence trends and client expectations. Only through collaboration with manufacturers, project teams and the end users, will we be able to produce a 100% sustainable spotlight.

The challenge is here, it can be achieved together. One step at a time.