Seal of Dane County County of Dane
Dane County Office of Energy & Climate Change

LED exchange signLED Lightbulb Exchange


by Heather Phelps

Partnerships are key to climate action, and one such inspiring example is a collaboration among the City of Middleton Sustainability Committee, the Middleton High School Green Team, and the St. Bernard Catholic Church Creation Care Team.  Together, in 2021 they earned Climate Champion status in the Catalyst category.

In partnership they hosted an LED lightbulb exchange over the course of a single week at three locations in Middleton: the Middleton Recycling Center, St. Bernard Catholic Church, and Kromrey Middle School.  Members of the community could pick up free LED bulbs while returning their older, less efficient bulbs.  This exchange provided community members a safe way to dispose of compact fluorescent bulbs (CFLs), which contain mercury and therefore should not be thrown away, while providing the opportunity to upgrade to an energy-efficient alternative.  

Between the three events, 1,614 CFLs and 958 incandescents were turned in, with 1,928 new LEDs given out. The Middleton Recycling Center alone had over 300 cars drive through. 

The energy - and therefore cost - savings for this many exchanges is considerable.  The events saved 39.4 U.S. tons of CO2 emissions every year.  Middleton residents are projected to save a total of $9,240 a year.

In addition to the immediate energy savings for community members, these events proved to be a great entry point to talk about other sustainability issues and community wide energy goals.  Kelly Hilyard, the City of Middleton Sustainability Coordinator, said, “Many people learned about easy ways they can save energy in their homes, about offerings from Focus on Energy, and about energy conservation.”  Not everyone who attended the events was aware of the difference in energy efficiency between incandescents, CFLs, and LEDs, so it was an opportunity to discuss the many different opportunities for households to save energy.

LED Lightbulb volunteers

Even better, the Middleton Sustainability Committee was able to partner with PKK Lighting, a local company which offers recycling of 100% of each bulb, as opposed to merely pulling the toxic mercury out of CFLs.  

LED lightbulbs

LED Lightbulb participantBen Roden, of the St. Bernard Catholic Church Creation Care Team, was excited about the opportunity to do a project in conjunction with the Middleton Sustainability Committee. The Creation Care Team started in 2019 with the mission of encouraging the St. Bernard community to care for creation in line with Catholic teachings on the environment.  When Ben heard the city’s plans for a lightbulb exchange, he suggested doing another exchange that same weekend at St. Bernard’s.  Ben explains, “The goals of our Creation Care team included educating parishioners, taking direct action to support sustainability, and partnering with our local community.  This event addressed each of those goals.”  St. Bernard’s is already considering more ways to help their parishioners participate in sustainable practices.

Daphne Wu, a founding member of the Middleton High School Green Team and a member of the Middleton Sustainability Committee, was instrumental in getting the Green Team involved.  

The Green Team made the decision to hold their portion of the exchange in conjunction with another school program giving out free meals to food insecure families, in order to focus on reaching those who might otherwise not be able to afford LED bulbs.  Daphne says the project offered students a meaningful and impactful volunteering experience, even in the middle of COVID.

LED Exchange High School

The Middleton Sustainability Committee, a group of citizen representatives who research and develop sustainability recommendations for the City of Middleton, is also interested in questions of equity and reaching different segments of the community. For example, affordable housing tends to be less energy efficient, leaving residents with a higher energy burden. Further, members of the community who are most in need of energy-efficient lighting are also least likely to be able to attend a community-wide exchange or purchase LED bulbs themselves.

Emboldened by the success of the lightbulb exchange, the Sustainability Committee has since expanded this effort by beginning a collaboration with Voss Haus, a senior living subsidized housing building in Middleton, to increase energy efficiency in affordable housing. The committee worked with Middleton Outreach Ministry and Kiwanis, two organizations which already had relationships with the building tenants, to exchange bulbs in each apartment and in common areas, and hopes to continue with more affordable housing units in the future.

Ultimately, Kelly says, the goal is for events like this to become leadership catalysts and a public display of what can happen through collective action.  For the students, the event also provided mentorship and learning opportunities as they crunched the data and tracked energy use. 

For students interested in getting involved with environmental actions at other schools, Daphne suggests, “Either create your own club, or join the existing sustainability club at your school and take initiative whenever possible.”

For other groups that might want to make a difference and aren’t sure where to start, Ben’s advice is: “Climate change is such a broad topic - decide what areas you want to focus on, and align it to the broader mission of your organization. Start with a simple activity.  Our first event was to volunteer at the parish picnic to reduce the need for single use plastics.”

Kelly also points out that for people who have studied sustainability for a long time, it’s important to know when to go back to basics.  “I do a community event, and people are like, ‘Are carbon emissions important?’  So have your elevator speech ready.”

Ultimately, though, Kelly’s biggest takeaway is that, “Everyone wants to be a part of the solution.  So make a program or an event where everyone feels like they’re a part of it.”

With the partnership between the City of Middleton’s Sustainability Committee, the Middleton High School Green Team, and St. Bernard’s Creation Care Team, this project reached hundreds of families across Middleton, giving each one a chance to be part of the solution of the climate challenge.  We’re proud to recognize this partnership as Climate Champion Catalysts!