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Once the holidays are over and you’ve recovered from stuffing yourself with leftovers and pie, it’s time to think about packing away the Christmas tree, decorations, and lights. As you painstakingly wrap your 20th set of lights knowing it’ll somehow tangle itself over the next year anyway, you might ask yourself whether it’s time to get rid of some lights.
Luckily, holiday lights recycling is surprisingly easy, so you don’t have to throw holiday lights in the trash where they’d likely end up in a landfill. Most Christmas lights contain plastic, glass, and copper — materials that recycling facilities can crush up for reuse.
Keep reading to discover four easy ways to recycle your holiday lights, plus nine fun ways to repurpose your lights around the house if you want to reuse them instead.
A Brief History of Holiday Lights
When Thomas Edison patented the light bulb in 1880, it was a clear technological leap forward. However, it was more challenging to determine how to monetize the light bulb.
Luckily, a colleague named Edward Hibberd Johnson had a bright idea: reduce the fire hazard of candles on Christmas trees. How? With electric Christmas lights, of course.
Johnson wired 80 light bulbs in red, white, and blue and strung them around a tree. He placed the tree trunk on a rotating pedestal powered by a generator. He then called a reporter who wrote a piece about it, saying, “One can hardly imagine anything prettier.”
Johnson’s lights were certainly ahead of their time. Electricity wasn’t readily available yet, and the bulbs were expensive. In 1900, a string of 16 flame-shaped bulbs sold for $12 (about $350 today). In 1894, President Cleveland installed electric lights on the White House tree. By 1914, a 16-foot string cost only $1.75, and by the 1930s, colored bulbs were commonplace.
Today, American consumers buy approximately 150 million light sets every year.
How Holiday Lights Are Made
Two sets of materials make up holiday lights.
- The strings are made of 22-gauge copper wire coated in green or white polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastic. Specialized manufacturers provide the wire on spools with a capacity of 10,000 feet of wire. Each set of lights has two plugs on either end, and lamp holders hold the lights.
- The light bulbs are made of metal filaments, blown glass, plastic bases, and metal contact wires. Some bulbs are clear to make white lights, while others are painted to produce colored lights.
The basic holiday light design is green plastic-covered wires (to blend in with the green branches of evergreen trees). Newer designs include nets of lights that you can quickly spread over bushes to save time on decorating, as well as icicle lights to hang from your house eaves.
Here’s how manufacturers make the classic type of Christmas lights.
- The wire feeds into the machine for cutting, shaping, stripping, and coating with a cleaning agent.
- The LED light bulbs go into the machine, which tests them for positive or negative charges.
- The machine aligns all the stripped parts of the string with the individual light bulbs and solders the string and lights together.
- The machine tests each light for electric charge.
- A twisting machine gets the lights ready for packaging.
Thanks to this efficient production method, Christmas lights are cheap and widely available, so sometimes you end up with more than you need. If that’s the case, you have a couple of choices: reuse or recycle old lights.
Nine Fun Ways To Reuse or Repurpose Holiday Lights
If you don’t want to recycle old lights, there are plenty of fun ways to reuse them instead. Here are some crafting ideas for your Christmas lights.
- Create tin-can lanterns. Drill holes in some empty tin cans and hang them up in a tree with the lights (so the lights go through the can and shine out of the holes).
- Make a lit-up garland. Use some of your surplus holiday lights to make a garland by intertwining the lights with a faux foliage garland.
- Craft a banner for your porch or over your front door. To do this, simply paint over the string and lights, add some scrap fabric as pendants to the string, and hang it up.
- Add some soft lighting to your home by putting a set of string lights into a lantern, mason jar, or glass vase. A bonus is that in a mason jar, it doesn’t matter if there are some burned-out bulbs — no one will notice.
- Create a chandelier out of a grapevine wreath (most craft stores sell them). Weave string lights into the grapevine wreath and hang it above the dining room table, patio, or porch.
- Make ping-pong party lights. If you have some ping pong balls, they can make fun colored lights. To do this, poke a hole into each ping-pong ball and then push a lightbulb into each ball. When you plug in the string light, the ping-pong balls will light up.
- Brighten up kids’ rooms. This idea is fun for kids’ rooms: staple some strings of lights to the bedroom ceiling so the kids can fall asleep to a peaceful, fairy-light ceiling.
- Make a flameless fireplace. Place a few logs into a basket or fireplace grate and weave string lights throughout. Now instead of building and tending to a fire, you can just plug the fireplace in with your DIY “fire.”
- Get creative with individual bulbs. Remove some bulbs (especially the larger vintage-style bulbs) from their strings and rework them into something creative. For example, you could cover the bulbs in glitter or paint them and use them in a place setting or a decoration on a wrapped present.
How To Recycle Christmas Lights: 4 Easy Ways
It’s important to know that you shouldn’t get rid of your holiday lights by throwing them in the trash or recycling bin. Christmas lights are composed of different materials — like glass, metal, and plastic — that can be recycled. Additionally, the materials found in many bulbs and strands contain elements that don’t decompose in landfills.
Here are some ways to safely and responsibly recycle old lights.
#1: Inquire with Your Local Waste Management Facility About Christmas Lights Recycling
Google “Christmas lights recycling near me,” and your local government’s website will likely show up with information about how to recycle Christmas lights. Contact your local waste management facility to find out how they handle Christmas lights recycling.
While some facilities will strip the lights down for you and recycle them, others might not take lights at all. The facility could also have a contract with a third-party company that picks up and recycles the lights.
Many waste management facilities have specific days once or twice a month when they take items like holiday lights. Google your local solid waste department or give them a call to find out.
#2: Donate to a Local Thrift Store
Local thrift stores like Goodwill and The Salvation Army often take working lights, which they resell in their stores or donate to families who need them.
Some thrift stores might also take non working lights and do the recycling for you, in which case a metal recycler will pick the lights up. Then companies can do things like use the plastic from the lights to make shoe soles or other consumer products.
#3: Find Out if Your Local Home Improvement Store Will Recycle Old Lights
Call local stores like The Home Depot, Lowe’s, Ace Hardware, Menards, or True Value. Usually, just after the holidays, these types of stores will have a drop-off area to recycle old lights. Some home improvement stores even offer specials like a few dollars off an in-store purchase in exchange for every set of lights you drop off.
#4: Drop Off with a Speciality Scrap Metal Recycler
Cohen Recycling specializes in recycling metal and electronics and partners with local organizations to do holiday lights recycling. From December 1st to February 1st, you can drop off your lights at locations throughout Ohio and Kentucky. And if you want to recycle Christmas lights at any other time of the year, you can take them straight to one of our sites.
In the 2021-2022 holiday season alone, we collected 19,440 pounds of lights.
We accept all types of string lights, both traditional and LED bulbs. You can also recycle other electric holiday decorations, including a projector or the motor on an inflatable character. If you’re unsure whether we’ll take something, call us at (513) 422-3696 to find out. We take both ferrous (iron) and nonferrous (non-iron or steel) metals.
Tips for Reducing Waste During the Holiday Season
Americans throw away 25% more trash during the holidays than at any other time. That’s a whopping 25 million tons of garbage. So if you’re looking to reduce your waste this holiday season, here are a few tips to consider.
- Support local businesses. Shipping goods from around the country and the world has a high environmental impact, so consider doing more shopping locally this year. It’s a great way to support local businesses, find unique gifts only available in your community, and eliminate the energy and packaging necessary to ship items long distances.
- Give experiences instead of stuff. There are many options, from cooking classes to tickets to a local museum, concert tickets, or pottery classes. Plus, your gift recipient will have your present to look forward to once the holiday season is over.
- Wrap presents creatively. Many gift-wrapping options don’t involve buying disposable wrapping paper. For example, you can gift wrap with old magazines and newspapers. You can also look into Furoshiki, the Japanese tradition of wrapping presents in fabric. Nice fabric, like cloth napkins, beautiful scarves, or fabric swatches, can be part of the present.
- Make use of your tree. There are many ways to recycle your Christmas tree. For example, evergreens make excellent firewood for outdoor camping and bonfires. You can also mulch your tree, cut the tree truck into one-inch thick drink coasters, or put green pine needles in sachets to make natural air freshener.
- Decrease food waste. Food waste accounts for 30-40% of America’s food supply, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. All that food could go to families who need it, but instead, it wastes the water, labor, and land required to produce, ship, prepare, and store it. You can save money and food — and reduce waste — this holiday season by seeing what you already have on hand that you could use for holiday meals. And you can send guests home with leftovers to ensure nothing goes in the trash.
Recycle Old Lights Throughout Ohio and Kentucky
Reducing your waste during the holiday season is a great start to having less to recycle in January. Make it your New Year’s resolution to start reducing waste and recycling throughout the year. Cohen Recycling has resources and several drive-through recycling locations to make the process easy.
You can earn money by selling your scrap metal, including electronics, batteries, refrigerators, freezers, air conditioners, cars, and more. Not sure if you have something you can recycle? You’d be surprised what you can recycle with Cohen, including cast iron pans, medical devices, golf clubs — and even non-ferrous metals like aluminum, copper, gold, lead, nickel, silver, zinc, and tin.
And we make it easy to donate during the holidays with our holiday light dropoff locations throughout Ohio and Kentucky.
Don’t let your extra holiday lights gather dust and get tangled beyond belief over the year: recycle them with us instead. Your future self — and the planet — will thank you!