It doesn't feel right to put Christmas lights in a trash can. Maybe they've stopped working, or maybe you're replacing incandescent lights with safer, more energy-efficient LEDs. In any case, after brightening so many holiday seasons over the years, it can seem a little cold and unceremonious to just throw them away.
In fact, aside from the indignity, there are also more concrete reasons not to discard strands of Christmas lights with your garbage. Along with glass, plastic and copper that could be recycled, for example, they often contain small amounts of lead, a toxic metal used in some polyvinyl chloride (PVC) wire coatings to boost flexibility.
Fortunately, we now have several options for recycling old Christmas lights, helping our hard-working bulbs and diodes avoid the landfill while also sparing the environment from their toxic and non-biodegradable components.
As a first step, you could check with your municipal solid-waste office or other local government authority, which might have the most up-to-date information about local options for recycling electronics. A solid-waste or recycling center might also be able to help; even if electronics aren't accepted by your local curbside recycling program, some facilities accept old Christmas lights if you're willing to bring them in.
It may also be worth calling nearby hardware and home-improvement stores to see if they accept Christmas lights for recycling. Ask about coupons or other incentives, too, since a few stores — including Home Depot, Lowe's and True Value — sometimes hold promotions to encourage swapping incandescents for LEDs.
If you live in Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Virginia or Washington, D.C., you could also take your unwanted Christmas lights to Mom's Organic Market during its annual Holiday Lights Recycling Drive. The grocery chain accepts any kind of holiday lights, working or not, and gives them to Maryland-based Capitol Asset Recycling, which breaks them down with smelting or shredding to recover raw materials.
"These raw commodities are then used to create roofing and construction materials, piping, car batteries, other electronics, lead wheel weights, flatware, jewelry, and more," the company adds on its website. The annual recycling drive is held every winter, and the 2019-2020 edition runs from Nov. 29 until Jan. 31.
If it turns out personally delivering your lights for recycling would be too inconvenient or impractical, you may want to consider shipping them off to be recycled instead. Below are three U.S. companies that provide this service online, all of which offer discounts on new Christmas lights in exchange for your old ones.
• Holiday LEDs: This Wisconsin company launched its Christmas lights recycling program in 2012. It accepts both incandescent and LED lights for recycling, a company representative tells MNN, and the program is open all year. It repays participants with a coupon for 15% off, while the lights go to a third-party recycling facility, which puts them into a commercial shredder. The pieces are processed and sorted into components like PVC, glass and copper, which are then separated and sent to a regional center for further processing.
• Environmental LED: Based in Michigan, this company also specializes in LEDs and runs a recycling program for Christmas lights. Just pack up your old lights in an otherwise empty cardboard box — no bags, ties or other packing materials — and send them in to receive a coupon for 10% off new LEDs. The company takes your lights to its recycling center, where they're chopped into pieces and the cardboard shipping boxes are recycled. The pieces are then sorted into categories and recycled.
• Christmas Light Source: "The thought of used Christmas lights being carted off to a landfill after bringing joy to so many passersby just didn't seem right to us," this Texas company says on its website, "but very few recycling centers had the capabilities of recycling the glass, copper and plastic from Christmas light sets." CLS finally found such a center near Dallas, though, and has run a recycling program since 2008. The recycling center pays a small fee per pound of lights, and the company then uses all proceeds to buy books and toys, which it donates to Toys for Tots every December. Participants get a coupon for 10% off new lights.
Once you've parted ways with your old Christmas lights, you can help delay the demise of their replacements by opting for LEDs, which are more durable and longer-lasting than incandescent bulbs. Incandescents also release most of their energy as heat, which both wastes electricity and could create a fire hazard, especially if they're strung around a dried-out Christmas tree. LEDs, on the other hand, don't get hot or burn out, making them safer, more energy-efficient and lighter on the power bill.
Editor's note: This article has been updated with new information since it was originally published in November 2011.