Extensive use of natural lighting should be a no-brainer, but is surprisingly underused.
By David Nightingale, CHMM, S.C.

Use of natural lighting at HHW collection facilities is not difficult to plan into a new building. Although it is a bit more in construction costs, it saves in long-term operating costs, and can create a more productive workspace and potentially increase morale and worker retention. Examples are provided below where natural lighting has been implemented as well as the potential to have a more environmentally sustainable HHW collection facility.

Natural Lighting Significantly Enhances the Workplace and Boosts Productivity
The Harvard Business Review proclaimed on September 3, 2018 that the #1 office perk was natural lighting.1 This was based on a survey of more than 1,600 employees by the firm Future Workplace. Natural lighting and views to the outside beat out desires for onsite childcare, free lattes, workout gyms or other perks that typically get the headlines. Essentially, there is a fundamental human craving for natural light.

The Harvard Business Review article states that 47 percent of employees responded that the absence of natural light makes them feel tired or very tired. Seventy percent of the surveyed employees reported improved work performance and 78 percent reported improved workplace wellbeing with natural lighting. A large office building in Salt Lake City optimized natural lighting for their workers and realized more than $2 million in increase productivity.2 Yet, it is easy to find examples of HHW collection facilities that are essentially solid metal boxes with very limited use of natural lighting, often amounting to a few small windows, an unattractive and performance limiting work environment.

Sunlight and Health
Humans evolved with bright daylight during the day and darkness at night. With our artificially built environment, we have changed this natural daylight and darkness exposure pattern and rely to a great extent on artificial lighting at far lower lighting levels compared to natural daylight. “People tend to feel better, more cheerful and energized in daylight.”3 This was recognized clinically in the early 1980s with the diagnosis of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) for which light exposure therapy is a proven treatment.

Another study examined workers in windowless environments compared to workers with significant exposure to daylight. The quality of life, quality of sleep, and overall health between the two employee groups was measured and evaluated. The study found that: “Workers with more light exposure at the workplace tended to have longer sleep duration, better sleep quality, more physical activity and better quality of life compared to office workers with less light exposure in the workplace.”4 Insufficient sleep or reduced sleep quality have been shown to result in more short term memory loss, slower reflexes and reduced attention capacity.5

These studies mostly reflect office work environments not HHW facilities. However, there is little reason to assume that the human impacts of no or insufficient natural light in the workplace would have any different effect on HHW workers. If insufficient natural lighting results in diminished attention to waste characterization and mistakes in handling hazardous materials, employee workplace hazards may be increased. In this sense, accident prevention through better lighting may be less expensive than the costs of increased worker injuries. Improved worker morale, reported as 78 percent increased workplace wellbeing in the Harvard Business Review article, is also an expected outcome from a naturally lit workplace. These positive results are before considering routine operating cost savings and other benefits from using natural lighting.

Lighting Operating Cost Savings
Lighting operating costs are not typically metered separately from other electrical uses. But we can use some generalized estimates to model those costs. First, let’s assume a moderately-sized HHW facility footprint of 8,000 square feet (see January 2020’s HHW Corner column in Waste Advantage Magazine for discussion of facility sizes). Figure 1 shows a short calculation of average annual lighting energy use (kilowatt hours per square foot per year, kWh/sq.ft.-yr.) and average energy costs ($/kWh) for commercial buildings in the U.S. applied to an 8,000 sq. ft. HHW collection facility.6


This estimated lifetime cost of lighting an HHW collection facility of this size is not high compared with total operating costs of labor and waste management, which for many programs runs into the hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. However, over the typical 30-year expected life of a permanent facility, the $5,750+ annual cost amounts to more than $172,000. If by using natural light, you cut your electrical lighting bills in half, recognizing the need for security lights at night, exit lights and other miscellaneous lighting, the long-term savings are worth noting, at least $86,000 in this example.

Other Benefits and Environmental Policy Drivers
This cumulative financial benefit is also before considering the real, but harder to monetize, benefits of improved productivity and worker morale mentioned previously. Additionally, with goals of environmental sustainability to reduce carbon emissions in many jurisdictions, reduced use of electrical power supports those carbon policies or mandates by avoiding the local fraction of fossil-fuel generated emissions used to produce electrical power.

Natural Lighting Examples
To the extent that HHW facilities operate mostly during daylight hours, it is possible to significantly reduce your need for artificial lighting during operating hours by using natural light. You may ask, “Is it realistic to suggest that you might avoid lighting costs all together with only natural lighting?” That was one of the goals during the design of the City of Elk Grove, CA, HHW and VSQG permanent collection facility called the Special Waste Collection Center. Elk Grove succeeded in this goal using a combination of windows, skylights, roll-up doors and highly-reflective light directing tubes for the interior spaces such as hallways and bathrooms. Figures 2 and 3, show areas in the Elk Grove Special Waste Collection Center relying only on natural lighting. With the presence of a solar photovoltaic array on their roof, Elk Grove actually makes more electricity than they use on an annual basis for all electrical uses.

Figure 2: Elk Grove, CA: Naturally lit waste storage area. Photos courtesy of Special Waste Associates.


Figure 3: Elk Grove, CA: Translucent explosion-venting polycarbonate panels naturally light the flammable liquids consolidation and storage room.

Figure 4 shows Thurston County, WA’s, HHW/VSQG collection facility designed to use natural lighting with supplemental electric lighting in the center of the main working area. The Thurston County facility takes advantage of natural lighting through a combination of clerestories, translucent wall panels, and windows in all waste management and office/breakroom areas of the building.

Figure 4: Thurston County, WA: Main work area with combined natural and artificial lighting.

Figure 5 shows the one-year old City of Mesa, AZ, Household Hazardous Materials Facility designed with special skylighting fixtures that are designed to conduct sunlight down to the typical lighting fixture level. At that point, the sunlight is evenly distributed throughout the building with light fixtures’ diffuser lenses.

Figure 5: City of Mesa, AZ: Work area lighted with specialized skylighting fixtures.

Staff Retention
It is often a challenge to locate and retain qualified and productive HHW workers. The cost of recruiting and training new employees is significant. To the extent that the work environment is made more attractive through the use of natural lighting, worker morale should remain high and retaining good HHW staff should be easier.

Whether you are interested in reducing operating costs, engendering more productive and engaged staff, saving energy, reducing carbon emissions, reducing worker turnover or all of these, natural lighting can facilitate each of these and is an easy feature to design into your new facility or remodeling plans. | WA

David Nightingale, CHMM, S.C., is Principal at Special Waste Associates (Olympia, WA), a company that assists communities in developing or improving HHW and VSQG collection infrastructure and operations. They have visited more than 140 operating HHW collection facilities in North America. As a specialty consulting firm, Special Waste Associates works directly for program sponsors providing independent design review for new or upgrading facilities—from concept through final drawings to create safer, more efficient and cost-effective collection infrastructures. Special Waste Associates also published the book, HHW Collection Facility Design Guide. David can be contacted at (360) 491-2190, e-mail [email protected] or visit www.specialwasteassoc.com.


1. https://hbr.org/2018/09/the-1-office-perk-natural-light
2. Ibid.
3. Anthea Court, University of Adelaide, The effects of exposure to natural light in the workplace on the health and productivity of office workers: a systematic review protocol, accessed at https://journals.lww.com/jbisrir/fulltext/2010/08161/the_effects_of_exposure_to_natural_light_in_the.5.aspx
4. Mohamed Boubekri, Ivy N. Cheung, Kathryn J. Reid, Chia-Hui Wang, Phyllis C. Zee, Impact of Windows and Daylight Exposure on Overall Health and Sleep Quality of Office Workers: A Case-Control Pilot Study, Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, June 15, 2014, accessed at https://jcsm.aasm.org/doi/10.5664/jcsm.3780
5. Ibid.
6. Michael S. Davies, Benchmarking Commercial Building Energy Use Per Square Foot, IOTA, March 5, 2019 at: https://www.iotacommunications.com/blog/benchmarking-commercial-building-energy-use-per-square-foot/, and US Energy Information Agency, Electric Power Monthly, Average Price of Electricity to Ultimate Consumers by End-Use Sector, March 24, 2020 at: https://www.eia.gov/electricity/monthly/epm_table_grapher.php?t=epmt_5_6_a