With the ubiquitous rollout of LED lights, there is a great potential for efficient recycling and recovery of materials. Extending the life of the materials in an LED can also extend the benefits from environmental and social costs embedded in the LED. While LEDs’ unseating of incandescent and fluorescent bulbs has also largely removed toxic metals like lead and mercury from homes, many still rely on arsenic and cadmium, and some still use lead. When LED lights are sent to landfills, these metals can find their way into waterways or harm wildlife.
The most valuable piece of an LED bulb is the gold circuitry, but extracting it is expensive compared with the cost of mining. While the other materials have monetary value, it doesn’t compete with the market prices for freshly mined materials. Gallium, for example, has long been cheap, as China’s booming aluminum industry has enabled an oversupply of gallium, says Jaskula.
“The gallium nitride chip can be recycled, but once that chip is put into an LED and the LED goes to the consumer, that gallium is never recycled,” says Jaskula of the USGS. “If people think they can make a profit recycling, they will find a way. If money can be made, that’s what gets things done.”
Oliver of the University of Cambridge investigated the causes of LED bulb failure, and in almost all cases, the diode was not the issue. “Basically we found that the LEDs still worked perfectly, but things that surrounded them, like the wires that attached them to the outside world, had come off,” she says. LEDs that are tossed out may still have a functional diode that could be reused. Extending the life of an LED depends on the mechanics of the plastic and aluminum framing, but the IEA notes that it could also gut companies’ business models to continually sell lights.
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