With such an emphasis on what can be recycled, we need to take a closer look at the possibilities of recycling LED lighting. Recycling is important not only to reduce landfill waste, but also to reduce the need for initial extraction of raw materials.
While all LED lights are manufactured in slightly different ways, the current logic is much the same. Namely an aluminum heat sink, aluminum PCB, LEDs, rubber or PVC coated wires and some form of junction box. We’ll look at the main components in turn:
Aluminum Heat Sink: Aluminum accounts for the majority of the weight of most LED lights because it removes heat from the LED. Aluminum is used because it conducts heat very well, can be easily molded or extruded, and is reasonably cost effective. Another major benefit is that it is very easy to recycle. Aluminum can be melted and reshaped without losing any of its key properties.
Cables: The cables used in LED lighting are mainly made of copper. Copper is an effective conductor and is easily recycled because, like aluminum, it can be melted and reformed indefinitely. The sheath of the cable is generally rubber or PVC. Due to the addition of UV stabilization additives, these jackets may or may not be recyclable and need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis
PC Board: PC boards are made from a variety of materials. In LED lighting, aluminum or copper is most common, although fiberglass forms are used for lower wattage applications. All metal based forms can be recycled as per radiators and copper cables, but fiberglass panels cannot.
PCB Components: There are countless potential components on a PCB, from resistors to capacitors. Many will not be recycled due to the complexity of the manufacturing method and the difficulty of removing them from the PCB.
Junction Box: Junction boxes are made of die-cast metal or plastic. Plastic tends to be glass-filled nylon, nylon or polypropylene, all of which can be recycled. Mild steel or aluminum boxes can also be easily recycled.
Brackets: Most brackets are made of die-cast aluminum or laser cut mild steel or stainless steel. Like most metal parts, these are recyclable and easily separated for recycling.
Fixings: Fixings such as screws, nuts, bolts are usually made of mild steel or stainless steel and are fully recyclable
Optics: A large number of LED lights use plastic optics to control the light. The main materials used are acrylic or polycarbonate. Both materials are recyclable. Other forms of control include reflectors. These are usually ABS or GFN with a mirror chrome finish, all of which are also recyclable.
Another form of recycling that is increasingly popular with councils and local authorities is the upcycling of old fittings by replacing specific components such as optics or PCBs. This can be effective if the product is designed with this in mind, but the potential has so far been limited due to continued innovation and change within the LED industry. Now that innovation has started to be more incremental, we may see more of this type of recycling go mainstream. While this won’t be easy, it will ultimately be the most efficient as the components can be reused without using more energy for melting etc.
So all in all, theoretically more than 90% (by mass) of each LED lamp is recyclable. The big question is how to disassemble the components and how to use the facilities available to do so.