Sustainability | Ecotrope

What Happens To Recycled Christmas Lights?

Ecotrope | Dec. 12, 2012 12:28 p.m. | Updated: Feb. 19, 2013 1:28 p.m.

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Have you ever dropped off your old strings of Christmas lights for recycling?

A lot of people do, according to Metro recycling specialist Patrick Morgan. And there are a lot of places around Portland to do it: You can drop them off at Metro transfer stations, Far West Fibers, C&M Recyclers … You can take them to Lowe’s or even to the Oregon Zoo’s gift shop, where “you can get a free piece of fudge in exchange,” said Morgan.

But what happens after the handoff?

The strings of lights contain valuable copper wire that’s worth extracting, Morgan said. Some companies collect the strings and shred them to get the metal. Others ship them to someone else to do the job.

A lot of old American Christmas lights get shipped overseas, and there’s a great video above from The Atlantic explaining the process used in “the world’s Christmas tree light recycling capital”: Shijiao, China.

Dave Bax, owner of the Beaverton recycler EcoBinary said his company collects hundreds of pounds of Christmas lights for free every year and adds them to other wires his company sends to a local processing center where they smelt the wiring down to get the metal.

At Metro Metals Northwest in northeast Portland, they will pay 20 cents a pound for your old strings of lights before they bundle them up and ship them overseas.

Christmas tree lights that are dropped off for recycling can go down a number of paths: But a lot of them go to Chinese recyclers who pulverize them and sell both the insulation and the metal. Chinese manufacturers use the plastic and rubber to make slipper soles.

Christmas tree lights that are dropped off for recycling can go down a number of paths: But a lot of them go to Chinese recyclers who pulverize them and sell both the insulation and the metal. Chinese manufacturers use the plastic and rubber to make slipper soles.

As Adam Minter reports, Christmas lights can be shredded in the U.S., but there’s more demand in China for the rubber and plastic insulation covering the wires.

As a result, Chinese recyclers recover more material from Christmas tree lights and they make more money doing it because they sell the insulation and the metal.

The demand for that insulation for manufacturing actually caused recyclers to change the process they use to separate the insulation from the metal wire.

A few years ago, Chinese recyclers would burn the Christmas lights in giant piles to get the metal out and black clouds of smoke would spew out from the process, Minter reports.

Now Chinese manufacturers use recovered Christmas light insulation to make slipper soles.

Here’s Minter’s conclusion:

“There are some U.S. companies and organizations that take Christmas tree lights for free and promise to recycle them in the United States. And some of those lights may, in fact, end up being chopped in U.S. recycling plants. But most, invariably, will be sold for about 60 cents a pound, stuffed into a shipping container, and shipped to China — to the benefit of the environment, and pocketbooks, in both countries. Indeed, if there’s a weak environmental link in the chain, it’s the American consumers who start it by buying tens of millions of pounds of Christmas tree lights every year, only to throw them into the recycle bin, guilt free, when a bulb breaks.”

Do you agree? There’s a meaty discussion below his post in which readers argue environmental regulations governing Chinese recyclers are lax, and the toxins lining the wires then show up in products shipped to America. And Minter explains how the impacts of the oil burned to ship the Christmas lights overseas don’t outweigh the benefits of recycling because the lights are loaded into the empty containers that would go back to China anyway after deliveries of Chinese goods to the U.S.

The debate over how environmentally beneficial it is to recycle Christmas lights makes me wonder how hard it would be to fix the broken strings of lights, and how often that happens, if at all …

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