Improving the environmental profile of LED lighting

Improving the environmental profile of LED lighting

Taking it a step further…

November 17, 2016

After becoming the fastest person to single-handedly sail around the globe, Dame Ellen MacArthur had an insight:

"When you sail around the world in a boat, you take everything with you [that] you need, you’re at sea for three months…You realise what finite really means, because what you have, is all you have, there simply is no more. I stepped off the boat at the finish line and I suddenly realised that in fact our global economy is no different. Our global economy is entirely dependent on finite resources."

Given the energy and other resources used for lighting, there’s a lot we can do to lessen our impact. So how do we improve the environmental profile of LED lighting?


You may have heard about the signed document from a consortium of lighting companies stating no manufacturer was allowed to make a bulb lasting more than 1,000hrs. Or that Thomas Edison’s prototype lasted 1,500hrs, while we grew up with bulbs lasting only 1,000hrs. Planned obsolescence is nothing new.

This is one reason I love LED; it’s a disruptive technology with a long lifespan. Some high end products (e.g. even last up to 100,000hrs, literally 100 times longer than the incandescent bulbs we grew up with.

Of course we have to be careful about exaggerated claims. LED lighting has now been around long enough to back up its claims, and there are many LED lights that have been successfully running well past the 50,000hrs on their data-sheet. But there’s also a lot of LEDs not living up to their claims, often because the standard “50,000hr lifespan” is quoting the lifespan of the chip itself, tested in a perfect environment.

So choosing high quality lights with long lifespans is important, as is using suitable lights (e.g. moisture-proof lights in bathrooms, weatherproof lights outside).


So how do you tell which product will pass the test of time? Warranty for one thing will give you a good indication. And of course quality, which often corresponds with price. If you buy a mid range $25 downlight with a 3yr warranty, some units will almost definitely fail after three years. But if you buy a high quality downlight with a 7yr warranty – there’s a good chance some units will still be running perfectly 20 years down the track.

As well as longer lifespans, quality lights are also less likely to become outdated. A few years ago when most LED had a colour rendering index of 70, we provided 90 CRI par lamps to St Johns Cathedral in Brisbane. While most LED from back then are now outdated, the lights we supplied are still as good (if not better) than other products on the market today.

Retrofits and recycling

With so many LEDs being retrofitted to replace old technologies, there’s a lot of old lights ending up in landfill, but it doesn’t have to be this way. In Australia we have companies who recycle old lights, taking fluorescent tubes and extracting the aluminium and mercury to be re-used. In some cases old lights can even be donated to someone who can’t afford LED. For more info on what to do with your old lights, see

Embodied emissions

Since most of the environmental impacts of a light come from its energy consumption rather than the manufacturing (see this graph), LED lights are much better than traditional lighting technologies (see

However, the manufacturing footprint of an LED light also comes into play.

Using recyclable or biodegradable materials is a good start to combat this. For instance a product made from aluminium (which can be recycled) from a company offering a buyback scheme to ensure they get recycled (e.g. means most of the materials can be re-used. This is not black and white though, and in some cases aluminium may have higher embodied emissions than plastic, and if it’s going to end up in landfill, then things look a little different, and of course plastic is directly made from oil, so this is also something to consider. Using products which use minimal materials is something to consider.

Transport emissions are also included in this scope, so using lights which are manufactured locally, or at least lights which are imported by sea freight rather than air freight is important.

Offsetting embodied emissions also plays a big role, and there now carbon neutral lighting products on the market, some of which are available through Austep Lighting.

Another option may be lights made from bioplastics, after all we now have everything from bioplastic cups to furniture (bioplastic doesn’t necessarily mean it will biodegrade quickly, so much as its not made from fossil fuels). *Bioplastic lights is something we’re currently looking into; so far we’ve only found one other product on the market (, so we’re in negotiation with various LED factories and a German bioplastic producer to see what can be done. Get in touch if you’d like to be involved.

Lighting design

Sustainable lighting design also plays a huge part in the picture. Designing a building to make use of natural light, using banks of lights so not all lights have to be turned on at once, tailoring the lighting to each room based on the purpose of the room, and even using light coloured paints to increase room reflectance factors can all make a big impact on carbon emissions. A big part of this is to not over-light spaces, and instead using task lighting to supplement low ambient levels.

Even using surface mounted lights instead of recessed lights (to maintain the integrity of insulation and air seals) can make a massive difference to the power consumption of air conditioning and heating.

Smart lighting is another area with great potential, for instance using timers or occupancy sensors to dim lights that aren’t in use, and daylight sensors to make use of natural light.

For further reading on eco lighting design see and

Replaceable parts

The best option is to get a high quality light that will last a long time, because as technology changes it may be harder to source replacement parts, but in reality all products have a percentage of failures, so using lights with replaceable parts is important. It means the whole fitting doesn’t have to be thrown away if/when there is a failure. Standardising these parts is a good idea, making them easier to source.

Behaviour change

While more businesses are taking steps to improve their environmental profiles, it can be hard to justify implementing costly changes. However due to its financial (and PR) benefits, LED lighting is an all round winner and fits both these criteria. This doesn’t necessarily create long term behavioural change if the original motivation is purely financial, but it does give us a chance to return after LED is installed, and make the building owner proud of what they’ve done, potentially even turning them into a spokesperson for green technologies.

Internal operations

Finally, we can’t overlook how a lighting supplier runs their company. As a company promoting green technologies we believe its important to lead by example. Little things like staff using public transport or carpooling and doing carbon accounting, to the obvious step of using green power and LED lights in our own offices, are all important.


Former Friends of the Earth chief Jonathan Porritt made the point “New applications of increasingly efficient lighting technologies have consistently offset the energy efficiency gains from new lighting technologies almost exactly”.  

There’s a lot more to consider than just energy savings when it comes to sustainable lighting, we need to look towards making lighting more eco-friendly, rather than just making more eco-friendly lights.

Humans are gifted with imagination and innovation, so lets apply ourselves to improving the environmental profile of lighting and work towards a brighter future.