Energy + Environment, Interviews + Opinion

Sustainability And Light Emitting Diodes (LEDs)

By Jeff Schwartz, LC, Member Emeritus IES  – JDS1 Consulting

A recent editorial in LD&A magazine noted that we no longer have to single out “LED” lighting projects because now almost all projects use LEDs. There is no question that LEDs have drastically reduced energy use in both new construction and retrofit projects. So much so that some are arguing if we even really need lighting energy codes anymore.

But if we take a look backward, there are lessons to be learned. When fluorescent tubes, screw-in compact fluorescents, and “PL” type lamps came out, we hailed them as wonderful energy-saving technologies. Then we found out that the mercury they contained was ending up in our landfills. It took years, and the investment of significant capitol, before we started recycling fluorescent lighting. In fact, laws were passed, and codes established to make sure fluorescent recycling got done. We got really good at it, recycling almost all the materials.

With the introduction of LEDs, we jumped right into selling and using them without a well thought out plan to deal with end-of-life. When I first started selling LED exit signs in the 1980s, I joked with my customers that these would last so long “we will both be retired before they burn out.” Well, I was right about burning out, but recent studies have shown that older LED exit signs no longer meet the standards for visibility due to depreciated lumen output. If we are to correct this problem, it means that millions (yes millions) of older exit signs should be replaced sometime soon. And our plan for recycling is?? While there are some companies offering to recycle LEDs, I have yet to find any information on how much of the material is actually recycled.

Metals and metalloids such as arsenic, gallium, indium, and the rare-earth elements (REEs) cerium, europium, gadolinium, lanthanum, terbium, and yttrium are important mineral materials used in LED semiconductor technology. Each of these is used in miniscule quantities. Are they actually being recycled, or is it just the plastic and metal? If these end up en masse in our landfills, what impact will they have on our water tables if they leak? What are the potential health risks? Once again, what are we doing to our environment?

Vermont and California have both recently moved to ban most fluorescent tubes and CFLs, in order to push forward with LED replacements. As noted, we have the ability to recycle all those fluorescent tubes, but what do we do ten or more years from now when the LED tubes reach end-of-life? We know how to recycle the glass, but what about the rest of it?

The National Association of Innovative Lighting Distributors (NAILD) recently put out an open letter in which they challenged our industry to think of sustainability in terms of components (like replaceable tubes) instead of whole fixtures that will be thrown away. While that certainly addresses part of the problem, it still leaves us with a technology that is difficult to recycle.

In summary, sustainability has to be cradle to grave, and I fear that just like with fluorescent lighting, we have not thought through all of the long-term implications for LEDs.

Jeff can be reached at –


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