Christmas lights start and end their lives in China, but you can recycle them in Boulder County


Recycle those lights

Holiday string lights and extension cords can be recycled free of charge at:

• Eco-Cycle /City of Boulder Center for Hard-to-Recycle Materials, 6400 Arapahoe Road, Boulder. Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday

• Longmont Waste Diversion Center, 140 Martin St. Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m. Monday through Saturday

• Allenspark Drop-off Center, County Road 84 and Colo. 7. Hours 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday, Monday, Wednesday Friday, Saturday

• Nederland Transfer Station and Recycling Drop-off Center, 286 Ridge Road. See for hours.

Perhaps you’re digging out your Christmas lights to perform the annual ritual of plugging them in and counting the dead.

Maybe you made a time-consuming and unsuccessful attempt to repair the half-working light sets, replacing a few burned-out bulbs, fiddling with the tiny fuses before giving up and adding them to the collection in the garage — a tangled ball of white and green plastic, wire and glass.

And now you’re wondering what to do with them, and what happens next.

As simple as lights seem, the answers tell stories about the co-dependence of U.S. consumers and Chinese recyclers and producers, fluctuating commodity prices, the impacts of the Trump administration’s protectionist trade policies, and planned obsolescence.

For starters, burned-out Christmas lights need not end up in the landfill. They can be recycled, though they should not be put in household recycling bins.

“You don’t have to throw them away,” Harlin Savage, communications director for Eco-Cycle Inc. said of those lights that have lost their glow.

String lights and extension cords can be recycled in Boulder County at locations in Boulder, Longmont, Allenspark and Nederland, Savage said. Bulbs can be left attached, but bundling the cords and loosely tying them to avoid tangles is always appreciated, she said.

LED lights, such as these that were part of a display in Longmont in 2014, are more expensive to purchase but save money over the long term through both energy usage and longevity. (Matthew Jonas / Staff Photographer)

Recyclers and scrap yards across the country accept defunct string of lights for recycling to return them — specifically the copper wire inside — to the global commodities supply chain.

“Right now, there is a market for Christmas lights and it’s strong enough that I can actually pay a little bit for it, and I get paid for it,” said Jonathan Howe, owner of West Seattle Recycling in Seattle.

He’s paying 5 cents a pound.

Howe said he’s paid as much as 25 cents a pound in the past. It’s all driven by the global copper market, which was dragged down a few months ago by a slowing Chinese economy and the U.S.-China trade war, which also promises to boost the cost of new Christmas lights — almost all of which are made in China.

Recyclers seek the best price they can get for Christmas lights from specialty buyers who ship them to China — specifically to Shijiao, a town in Guangdong Province that has a specialization in Christmas lights recycling and handles millions of pounds of them each year, according to the 2013 book “Junkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade,” by journalist Adam Minter.

Industrial shredders there chop the light sets to bits and separate the valuable metal from the plastic. That’s an improvement over earlier practices, in which the plastic parts were burned off.

“The process in China for recycling lights is cleaner than it previously has been, and from what our contacts in China have told us, the Chinese government no longer allows burning in order to extract copper from the wire,” said Jason Woodward, managing partner and marketing director at Christmas Designers, a Sherman, Texas-based specialist in Christmas lights.

That’s where the journey ends for old lights. It’s also where the journey begins. But that wasn’t always the case. Electric Christmas lights are a distinctly American invention.

Thomas Edison gets credit for the first string of electric lights, displayed in his Menlo Park, N.J., laboratory in 1880. Edward Johnson, an Edison friend and partner, was the first to put the lights on a tree in 1882, replacing the traditional (and dangerous) candles, according to a history compiled by the Library of Congress. President Grover Cleveland had the White House Christmas tree decked out in electric lights in 1895, and the electrification of Christmas began in earnest.

Edison’s General Electric pioneered the first light sets in 1903, but they were costly — renting a set of 28 was $300 in today’s dollars. In the 1920s, the National Outfit Manufacturer’s Association, NOMA, took over the business with a more affordable option, and was the largest manufacturer in the world for the next 40 years, according to Woodward, who wrote a detailed history of Christmas lights last year.

In the 1950s, the popularity of aluminum Christmas trees, which were not decorated with lights, hit NOMA hard. It went bankrupt in 1966. By 1978, U.S. Christmas light manufacturing was a thing of the past.

The popularity of Christmas lights has only grown, however, with homeowner and businesses vying to outdo each other in over-the-top lighting displays.

Now, China dominates the Christmas lights business. In 2017, nearly $416 million worth of “lighting sets of a kind used for Christmas trees” were imported to the U.S., almost entirely from China, according to trade statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. That’s an estimate of just the price paid at export. Woodward said lighting and decorating for Christmas is a “multibillion-dollar industry, but oddly enough, there’s very little solid research data available.”

Judging by the volume of lights observed at the Shijiao recyclers, a good deal of that is spent on replacing last year’s burned-out sets. Woodward said retail-grade light sets can be expected to last, on average, two to three years.

This feels a lot like planned obsolescence — the industrial strategy of building products to fail, pricing them so cheaply that repair isn’t worth it and reaping repeat sales from the same customers year after year. (Coincidentally, planned obsolescence as a business strategy began in the 1924 with the Phoebus cartel of international light-bulb manufacturers — including GE — who divvied up the global market and agreed to artificially limit the life span of the incandescent light bulb to 1,000 hours, well below the common operating life of bulbs at the time.)

Then again, Christmas lights do tough duty, enduring the jolts and abuses of unpacking and setup, exposure to wet and windy winter weather and fleeting-but-still-damaging sunlight, the post-holiday takedown and storage the rest of the year in a hot-cold garage or attic.

So how to get off of this global cycle of buying, recycling and buying again? One way is to kick the incandescent habit.

LED lights that are coming to dominate the market promise greater durability, in part because they use dramatically less power.

Eco-Cycle’s Savage said the nonprofit encourages people to trade in their old incandescent lights — working or not — for LEDs. Incandescent lights are “huge energy suckers,” she said. ‘They use about 80 percent more energy than LED lights.”

While LED lights do cost more up front, they will produce savings over the long term both in terms of energy consumption and in longevity, she said.

People should look for lights marketed as professional or commercial grade, which can be expected to last twice as long as retail-grade sets, Christmas Designers’ Woodward said. They come at a premium price, but should be cheaper over their life span.

He notes that made-in-China doesn’t have to mean low quality.

Three years ago, Christmas Designers, which sells lights directly and also has a large commercial installations business, developed its own private- label light sets. They’ve since earned the top rating in the outdoor-lights category from comprehensive product review site Wirecutter.

Woodward and his business partners travel regularly to China to monitor the manufacturers they contract with and the product coming off the assembly line. “We’ve found that the highest quality product comes from the factories that value their employees and provide the best possible working environment,” he said.

Christmas lights from China were among the thousands of products slapped with 10 percent tariffs in September. That was due to increase to 25 percent in January, but last weekend’s agreement between the U.S. and China puts it off for 90 days while the two governments seek to iron out their many differences on trade.

Christmas Designers expects to raise prices next year to account for the tariffs. But that’s unlikely to spark a renaissance in U.S. Christmas lights manufacturing, Woodward said. “Our estimates put the (U.S.) manufacturing cost at about 80 percent over what we’re able to get the lights for overseas,” he said.

As the impact of the tariffs takes effect, he expects a surge in production in Vietnam and other developing countries, rather than China.

Camera staff contributed to this report.


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