The Carbon Footprint of Lighting

Last Thursday David, Tarryn and I attended a local meeting of the Illuminating Engineering Society of LA with friend and Los Angeles-based lighting designer Sean O’Connor.

We met at the Proud Bird, a restaurant and home to a wild display of vintage aircraft near LAX, where David gave a talk about the carbon footprint of lighting. Elaborating on the effects of lighting beyond the small container of the bulb, this cradle to grave analysis was, forgive me, illuminating.

Proud Bird

Sean invited David to speak after he delivered a brief and far less technical version of the talk at NeoCon late last year. The IESLA is a sophisticated bunch, and this audience of over 40 lighting designers and architectural specifiers was unfazed by the level of technicalese that accompanies any in-depth analysis.

Sean O'Connor and David Calligeros

Key words were: remediate, mitigate, ameliorate. Almost any activity that humans can engage in generates some negative impact on the environment. So the key is first to really suss out those effects, and then to deal with them as responsibly as possible.

David cobbled together oodles of data about the trajectory of our modern light sources before and after we screw and unscrew a bulb.  Of course the aesthetic merits of incandescent, CFL, halogen and tubular fluorescent bulbs were compared and the efficacy in terms of lumens versus watts noted. But David’s chart, an improvement on the Excel spreadsheet with hand renderings of a cute skull and crossbones heading the toxicity column, and a rainbow arc at the top of the spectral properties column, looked at the real and often invisible costs of manufacturing and transporting and running these bulbs.

Far beyond the wattage noted on the label, we looked at the type of power fueling the grid, the trajectory and transport used to get the bulbs to market, the labor conditions under which the raw elements in the lamps are mined, and the actual recycling practices afoot in the US (a sad 23% of bulbs actually make it into the blue bin).  A very different picture of the environmental footprint of the vilified incandescent and the beatified CFL emerged.

The talk was totally engaging and the data easily digestible for the layperson (no photometrics calculations required). And it wasn’t enviro-book thumping. Everyone chuckled when Dave acknowledged that we probably won’t ever find ourselves in a pastoral Eden where yeomen Mennonites hand make all of our consumer goods for micro-local markets.

Put into an easy to digest example, who wouldn’t choose an apple grown in her neighbor’s backyard over a box of processed food from a mill in the Midwest with an ingredient list a mile long including a slew of unintelligible chemicals? Even if it’s a box of organic granola, the process of preparing it, the preservatives that go into it, the trucks that bring it to our local market and the box itself, ultimately thrown away (where exactly is “Away” on a map of the world again?) to moulder in a landfill, the apple is the healthier choice.

 

It was pretty evident: a CFL made in China without environmental protections or fair labor practices, which is then containered over the open seas and powered by a coal burning plant, is decidedly not an environmentally preferable lamp.

To expand on the old adage: we are what we, as consumers, consume. Here’s to reading beyond the labels.

Jeffrey Boynton of the IESLA chatted with Dave about the development of a set of recommended considerations that takes into account environmental impacts of lamping - six years in the making and soon to be released.

-Valerie Thomas, Remains Lighting, Los Angeles

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