Many readers of this article will already be familiar with the damage caused by poor lighting -- to the skin, the eyes and the brain. They will also likely know that some light bulbs and wavelengths of light are healthier for the human body than others. What they might not know is that lamps themselves -- both in concert with and separated from their bulbs -- can have serious negative impacts on the earth and on home health -- particularly when landfilled. The importance of green lighting design and of recycling light bulbs and fixtures in order to preserve planetary health cannot be understated. In Living Deep’s article “3 Ways to Dispose of Furniture Without Hurting the Planet,” we discussed the importance of purchasing easily reduced furniture. Modular -- or at least simple and reversible -- construction is key to recycling as many elements as possible.
This is just as true for lamps and other functional objects as it is for furniture. Unfortunately, few light fixtures are designed in a way that makes them easy to break down. Given all of this, home lighting poses two major issues that must be addressed by both designers and consumers. First is the impact of the bulbs, which includes potential damage to human health, overuse of energy and poisoning of the earth when landfilled. Second is the impact of the lamp itself, which includes potential damage to human health and its impact on the earth. Thankfully, a number of ethical lighting designers have recognized this pair of issues. In response, they have created fixtures from responsibly sourced, recyclable -- or even from recycled -- materials. These designers have also outfitted their products with safe and efficient bulbs. Follow below to learn more about this “responsibility revolution” and the designers pushing it forward.
The Importance of Recycling Light Bulbs and Fixtures
According to the brief “Lights & lamps” from the Washington State DOE, “nationally, about 680 million lamps [here: light bulbs] are disposed of per year.” All told, this could result in the emission of as much as four tons of mercury across our environment annually. The EPA brief “Durable Goods” outlines the shocking number and ratio of furnishings, finishings and appliances which are landfilled rather than recycled each year. While not specifically referenced within the EPA’s report, light fixtures and lamps are considered durable goods. Light bulbs are not considered durable goods, but rather non-durable or soft goods. In the article “Durable & Non-Durable Goods” for Intelligent Economist, Prateek Agarwal explains that “durable goods are those goods that don’t wear out quickly." They typically "last over a long period…[such as] land, cars, and appliances.” Non-durable goods are those that “are used up all at once or have a lifespan of fewer than three years. Lamps and light fixtures are often considered furnishings, finishings and small appliances, so it is unclear how lamps would be categorized within this data.
Furnishings and Small Appliances Discarded Each Year in the US
Regardless, the data published by the EPA is astounding. The brief notes that “in 2018, EPA estimated that the generation of small appliances was about 2.2 million tons…[but] only about 5.6 percent was recycled.” While “a small proportion of small appliances were combusted for energy recovery (18.5 percent)...the majority (75.9 percent) were landfilled.” As for furniture and furnishings, the EPA found in 2018 that “12.1 million tons” were produced, “up from 2.2 million tons in 1960.” Of these tons of goods, “19.5 percent of furniture and furnishings was combusted for energy recovery in 2018." However, "the majority of this product sector was landfilled (80.1 percent).” Given these shocking data, choosing lamps and light fixtures which can be recycled and are easily recycled is vital to planetary and human health.
How to Recycle Light Fixtures
As mentioned above, modular constructed light fixtures are easiest to disassemble and recycle, as are those made from few and similar materials. If one cannot disassemble and recycle the parts of a fixture on one’s own, one might consider donating products in good condition. When the piece is too damaged, one might seek professional help from a center experienced in recycling light fixtures. For more information about donating homewares, read Living Deep’s Into the Deep article “3 Ways to Dispose of Furniture Without Hurting the Planet.” To responsibly recycle non-functional light fixtures, consider advice from the Recycle Nation article “How to Recycle Light Fixtures.” The article suggests looking for a community e-waste facility. Most localities do have such spaces available for public use and which will accept old light fixtures.
If a local e-waste facility is either closed or unavailable, one can “find out if anyone does special e-waste collection days throughout the year.” Local governments and nonprofits often participate in these efforts, though “there may be fees associated with disposal” at such events. Before taking a light fixture to any recycling center, Recycle Nation recommends unscrewing all the bulbs. Removing bulbs helps one avoid injuring those working at the center -- or oneself while transporting the piece. To help ensure the fixture will be recycled, owners should “remove any fabric or paper lamp shades…[as] these cannot be recycled” due to the mixture of materials and likely use of adhesives.
Tips for Recycling Light Bulbs
As discussed above, certain bulbs can contain toxins which, when released, can affect the health of the biome. According to the EPA’s brief “Basic Information about Recycling Mercury-Containing Light Bulbs,” bulbs containing mercury are many. They include traditional fluorescent bulbs, neon lights and CFLs (compact fluorescent light bulbs). These bulbs produce light through the discharge of mercury vapor, while other bulbs like halogens and incandescents do so through heat. While many prefer cool-burning bulbs to hot-burning bulbs -- as hot-burning bulbs can result in fire and injury -- the mercury in CLFs and traditional fluorescents can be problematic.
Another brief by the EPA notes that recycling CFL and other fluorescent bulbs “prevents the release of this mercury into the environment.” When incandescent, CFL, fluorescent and other bulbs containing toxins are thrown into the trash, they break down, thereby releasing these toxins. LED and halogen bulbs do not contain mercury. However, they do contain small concentrations of other toxic chemicals, making proper disposal important. Recycling bulbs of all kinds not only prevents this toxic emission, but also allows other elements to be reused. As the EPA brief outlines, “recycling CFLs and other bulbs allows reuse of the glass, metals and other materials.”
Challenges Posed by Recycling Bulbs
Fluorescent bulbs are somewhat of an anomaly in the light bulb world. The EPA explains that “virtually all components of a fluorescent bulb can be recycled.” Furthermore, many areas around the country “prohibit disposal and/or require recycling” of fluorescents, doing so with other types of bulbs can be challenging. Nichola Gem explains the difficulties consumers might face when trying to recycle other bulbs in her article “Light Bulb Recycling” for Green Citizen. Gem writes that while incandescent lights are recyclable, “finding a recycling option for [them] may prove challenging." This is because "the energy that the process requires is not worth the salvaged material in the long run.” As such, Gem recommends that users carefully wrap and throw away incandescent bulbs rather than recycling them. Consumers might not have the option to buy incandescent bulbs for much longer. Because incandescents “have the worst energy efficiency of all the bulbs in use, several states have banned them.
Halogen and LED Bulbs
Halogen bulbs are a bit easier to recycle but must be taken to a recycling center rather than placed in glass recycling bins. This is because “the quartz glass they are made of melts at a different temperature than bottles and jars." As such, writes Gem, "a single bulb can ruin an entire batch of recyclable glass items.” Lastly, consumers may either recycle or trash LEDs, but should be aware that many contain “metals such as copper, nickel and lead.” Gem recommends taking used LEDs to “a specialized recycling facility since your average recycling center isn’t always able to process them.” Consumers might be shocked to learn that the LED -- a bulb praised for its energy efficiency and comparative safety -- often contains such toxins. However, while LEDs can contain toxins, one should keep in mind that “LEDs are up to 90% more energy-efficient than incandescent lights." Furthermore, LEDs "have a lifespan of 50,000 hours,” meaning fewer are needed.
Three Designers Sourcing Low-Impact Materials and Encouraging Recycling in Green Lighting Design
#1 Kitset Lighting from David Trubridge
We recently spotlighted designer David Trubridge in our article “Create a Warm and Memorable Travel-Inspired Interior.” In the article, we noted that “David Trubridge’s life and career are both rooted in preservation of culture, history and the natural environment.” Trubridge has long been deeply concerned with respecting the earth. He has thrown himself into conservation efforts of both wildlife and energy and searched for ways to make his products more sustainable. Though Trubridge has demonstrated this dedication throughout his entire career, his commitment to eco-conscious design recently made major waves in the design community.
In 2019, Trubridge announced that he would be immediately pulling a series of plastic products from distribution. Today, Trubridge’s light fixtures are made only from organic, renewable materials that are processed and shipped responsibly. He and his company pay particular attention to the life of the products they release into the world. They are very conscious of how each piece will be discarded at the end of its lifespan. This thought process is apparent in Trubridge’s Kitset Lighting collection, each piece of which is designed for maximum visual impact using minimal materials.
The Kitset Lighting Collection
According to the DesignBoom article “David Trubridge: Kitset Lighting,” Trubridge recently redesigned a number of his classic -- and enduringly popular -- designs into “kits” which can be folded for inexpensive, low-emission shipping and assembled by the consumer at home. Not only does this DIY construction method reduce shipping costs and emissions, but it also acquaints the user with the design of the product. This process allows consumers to easily disassemble and recycle each piece when necessary in the future. The DesignBoom article notes that in addition to this more eco-friendly method of shipping and construction, each component is gentler on the planet. Each component of the Kitset light fixtures are “made from thin flexible bamboo plywood which are attached to one another using small clips.” Each piece is also shipped in environmentally friendly packaging.
#2 Stickbulb from Russell Greenberg and Christopher Beardsley
Stickbulb is a lighting design collaboration between designers Russell Greenberg and Christopher Beardsley of RUX, launched in 2012. In the article “Designer of the Day: Russell Greenberg” for SURFACE, Shyam Patel describes Greenberg and Beardsley’s motivation behind creating Stickbulb. Quoted by Patel, Greenberg explains that Stickbulb is the first in what he hopes will be a long line of ethical designs. He hopes to release many creative, innovative and “responsible products” and “ethical brands.”
The Stickbulb Lighting Collection
The Stickbulb “About Page” describes the collection as the product of Greenberg and Beardsley’s experiment in “building with light.” Their modular light fixtures are created from “sleek wooden beams [which] come in one to six foot lengths." These beams "are designed to plug into and out of various steel hardware connectors without tools.” This adaptable design “allows for unlimited customization and creativity,” something very much unique to Stickbulb. Interestingly, it was a pile of “wooden cut-offs” in the RUX workshop that inspired Greenberg and his collaborators. After pondering these wooden beams, they launched themselves into “developing this truly sustainable lighting system.” For the Stickbulb collection, only “reclaimed and sustainable sourced woods [and]...energy efficient LED technologies and components” are used. According to the RUX Design website, these locally sourced materials come “from old water towers, fallen trees, demolished buildings, and sustainably managed forests.” In the end, each “modular LED fixture” is built “by hand in NYC.”
Today, the Stickbulb Floor Torch is available through Living Deep’s marketplace. According to the product’s listing description, the Stickbulb Floor Torch is “the most pure and minimal expression of the Stickbulb collection.” The lamp measures six feet tall, created from a “single, linear LED module elegantly held in place by a minimal steel base.” The Stickbulb Floor Torch’s wooden component is constructed “from dismantled water towers from New York City’s iconic skyline." This wood is actually "sourced within walking distance of the Stickbulb Studio (housed in the former warehouse of the city’s longest running steel mill).” Other pieces from the collection are available in one of five species of sustainably sourced wood. These include maple, walnut, ebonized oak, heart pine and water tower redwood.
#3 Grain from James and Chelsea Minola
Designers James and Chelsea Minola have always been interested in and concerned with sustainability and how the design industries -- industrial, interior, architectural -- might respond. The pair founded Grain Design together in the 2000s, later collaborating on a series of ethically produced homeware products. According to the company’s “About Page,” Grain Design “unites current manufacturing technologies and age-old craft techniques” to create small-batch goods. These pieces are often produced by the company at their island studio in Washington. If not, they are the product of “special collaborations with expert artisans in the US and abroad.”
Regardless, their work focuses on creating products that do not off-gas and do not add extra strain to the earth. Margot Guralnick describes their ethos in “The New Homesteaders: Chelsea and James Minola’s Craftsman Quarters on Bainbridge Island” for Remodelista. She writes that the pair links “good design, smart business practices, and a social conscience” in their work. As Guralnick explains, they do so by producing most of their pieces locally “in the Pacific Northwest." They do so either "downstairs in the basement workroom or in collaboration with area craftspeople.” In addition to their lighting collection, the Minolas have also designed furniture and a “small textiles collection” for Grain.
The Grain Lighting Collection
Grain currently offers nine designs through the Living Deep marketplace. Each is made to order, equipped with efficient LED bulbs and constructed from responsibly sourced materials. For example, their stunning rose-colored Grain Circlet Battuto Pendant is lovingly handmade from two major components. These include “a solid wood canopy” made from FSC certified solid American ash and a “hand blown and cold cut glass diffuser.” The historic Venetian glass cutting technique “battuto” is used to create this light, thus lending itself to the name of the piece. In addition to their work with Living Deep, Grain has also collaborated with DWR, Trina Turk and Anthropology.