Friday, December 19, 2014

Some Christmas Cheer: Liters of Light

Finally, another in my "Ray of Sunshine" series!  Suitable topics have been very hard to come by recently, buried deep in all the bad news about wars, political meltdowns, scandals, natural and unnatural disasters, etc., etc.  But here's something to fit the spirit of the season and counter some of that negativity.  It is about efforts to provide disadvantaged people around the world with a low-cost, environmentally friendly, and ecologically sustainable source of  interior lighting for their homes, schools, and businesses.  The impact on their lives is heart-warming -- and literally a "ray of sunshine."

BBC News Photo
"Liter of Light" refers to the main material used to create the lights -- discarded plastic liter bottles.  The bottles are filled with water plus a little chlorine to prevent algae growth, and then sealed into a hole cut in the roof with the majority of the bottle protruding below into the building.  Sunlight hitting the bottle is refracted into the space at about the same brightness as a 50-watt light bulb. The inventor of this device is Brazilian Alfredo Moser, who came up with the idea in 2002.  Although the original version works only during the day, a simple solar storage system has been developed that provides light at night as well, using a small photovoltaic panel and a battery attached to the plastic bottle.

Light is one of those things that we who are fortunate enough to live in countries with highly developed infrastructures take for granted, along with other niceties like clean running water, roads with only a few potholes, and centralized sewage treatment systems.  But the fact is that much of the world lives in conditions where none of these are the norm, including reliable lighting. Not having adequate interior light is perhaps hard for us to imagine, but it poses great difficulties for many people around the world for whom it is a fact of everyday life.

BBC News Photo
In Bangladesh, for example, daytime power outages are common in poor areas like Dhaka, leaving schools, homes, and small businesses in the dark.  As one student described the conditions before the bottle lights were installed in his school, "During power outages, our classrooms became so dark that our teachers often had to take us out into the corridor where we read under a bit of sunlight that managed to creep in."  The school could not afford a costly back-up generator, and kerosene lamps and candles were expensive, ineffective, and unsafe.  After a local organization called CHANGE installed Moser's low-cost bottle lights in the school the situation improved dramatically.  According to the same student, "We can now read and write under the solar-powered lights during the day, despite power outages or bad weather."  Other lights have enabled small business owners to be more productive during outages.  "It's helped hundreds of people - including sari makers and rickshaw repairers - whose livelihoods depend on having sufficient light" (BBC News).  A simple device made from trash, affordable by even the poorest, can make a huge difference in the quality of people's lives.

Even in situations where electricity is reliable, the savings in energy costs to people with meager incomes can provide much needed extra money.  Moser recounts "There was one man who installed the lights and within a month he had saved enough to pay for the essential things for his child, who was about to be born. Can you imagine?" (BBC News)  And there is a savings in terms of the carbon footprint of the bottle of light versus incandescent bulbs.  Being made from discarded material, the bottle lights require no significant energy to create and no CO2 is associated with their operation. In contrast, the carbon footprint of the manufacture of one incandescent bulb is 0.45kg CO2, and a 50-watt light bulb running for 14 hours a day for a year has a carbon footprint of nearly 200kg CO2 (BBC News).

Alfredo Moser
The impact of such a simple idea on the environment and on improving people's lives around the world is remarkable. Moser's invention has been adopted by organizations in at least 15 countries other than Brazil, from India and Bangladesh to Tanzania, Argentina and Fiji, and bottle lights have now been installed in hundreds of thousands of homes.  As Illac Angelo Diaz, executive director of the MyShelter Foundation in the Philippines put it, "Alfredo Moser has changed the lives of a tremendous number of people, I think forever." (BBC News) Thanks for the ray of sunshine, Alfredo......

For More Information:
A Liter of Light Organization Website
Alfredo Moser: Bottle light inventor proud to be poor.  BBC World Service, Uberaba, Brazil
Liter of Light Wikipedia Entry 
Bottle Lights Brighten Lives in Bangladesh.  Aljazeera News


Dennis Nord said...

That's cool! What a great way to reuse trash. I wonder how often they have to replace the bottles.

Richard Sherman said...

One of the articles said the lights last about five years and then are simple to replace.


Unknown said...

Your post reminded me of A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age Jun 1, 1993
by William Manchester.

It is very interesting to contemplate the world that Manchester describes and persisted until relatively recently.

Richard Sherman said...

I agree -- sometimes when traveling in less developed countries it is striking how dark situations are that we normally have (over)lit.

Here in Hawai'i there is a problem with light pollution -- too much nighttime glare interfering with the telescope viewing on Mauna Kea.

What a contrast to the world described in your book!