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updated: 12/28/2010 12:15 PM

Keeping holiday lights out of landfills

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  • Old Christmas lights often wind up in landfills, where it takes them thousands of years to decompose.

    Old Christmas lights often wind up in landfills, where it takes them thousands of years to decompose.
    Daily Herald file

  • Houses in this South Elgin neighborhood are brightly decorated for the holidays.

      Houses in this South Elgin neighborhood are brightly decorated for the holidays.
    Rena Naltsas | Staff Photographer

  • Naperville has various areas around the city that recycle Christmas tree lights, like the one at 421 Martin Ave.

      Naperville has various areas around the city that recycle Christmas tree lights, like the one at 421 Martin Ave.
    DANIEL WHITE | Staff Photographer

By Dave Heun

A reality of each holiday season is that it eventually ends, making it time to take down the Christmas lights.

For many, that means discarding fizzled strings or those being replaced by new energy-saving LED strings. And for decades, it has meant tons of worn-out Christmas lights end up in our landfills.

Environmentalists claim the plastic wiring common with holiday lights could take thousands of years to decompose. Animal lovers say a string of lights in a landfill can choke or entangle a small animal as easily as the plastic rings used on six-packs of soda.

Enter the age of recycling lights that at one time made the holidays bright in large or small displays at our homes, businesses or on our community streets and parks.

Elgin Recycling Inc., with headquarters in Gilberts and locations in Elgin, Crystal Lake and Palatine, is in its second year of picking up old Christmas lights to separate the recyclable materials, then bundle and send them off to a company for shredding.

"We have 41 drop-off locations set up with 24 villages throughout DuPage and Cook counties, and we also have the Naperville Park District in our program this year, and they offer five drop-off sites," said Brittany Conroy, who directs Elgin Recycling's holiday lights program.

"The program is really growing, and we want to expand next year into Kane and Lake counties," Conroy said.

"When we bring the wire back here, it gets sorted and packaged," Conroy added. "We then send it to processing plants to be chopped and the metals and plastics get recycled into new materials."

Program growing

Considering the program had only 12 communities involved last year but resulted in 9,949 pounds of recycled holiday lights, Conroy is expecting to see that number skyrocket in the years to come.

"A lot of villages don't save the lights year after year on their big community displays during the holidays," Conroy said. "And this is also a great outlet to be able to recycle those lights, rather than having them end up in landfills."

Conroy said communities in the program benefit by encouraging more green initiatives for residents, while Elgin Recycling benefits through name recognition as a recycling outlet.

"The Christmas lights program is growing, but because of what it costs for our trucks and labor, it is not a high-ticket revenue item for us," Conroy said. "But it is important for us to provide these recycling efforts."

Sameera Luthman, director of marketing and communications for the Naperville Park District, said the district has 4-by-4 containers at five facilities and residents can drop off used lights until Feb. 1.

"This is the first year that the park district has embarked on the project," Luthman said. "We got involved after learning about it from a SCARCE (School and Community Assistance for Recycling and Composting Education) presentation about new recycling efforts."

When the boxes fill up, Luthman said, Elgin Recycling picks them up for processing. Luthman wasn't sure how many pounds of lights were being processed from the Naperville sites, but noted that "these are very large containers and they get filled up."

West Chicago is also involved in the Elgin Recycling program, with drop-off sites in various locations throughout the city, including City Hall, where lights and extension cords can be dropped off until March 25.

The Solid Waste Agency of Lake County has a huge recycling program and will take all types of Christmas lights. Go to to find a local site, or call (847) 336-9430 for a list of drop-off locations.

Greener approach

Companies involved in creating large community displays are also taking a greener approach.

Brandano Displays, based in Florida, provided the holiday displays that cover nearly two miles on the Mooseheart campus for the Child City's first public holiday lights event.

Owner John Brandano said huge holiday displays had always been considered disposable in the past, but his company now offers parts of used displays for smaller rental projects rather than discarding them.

Brandano understands the concept of converting to LED lights as a way to use less power, but feels most consumers find the LED lights "kind of dull."

"They are not a good choice when people want 'excitement' in their displays," Brandano said. "You have to use twice as many LED lights, as they use 20 percent of the power of the incandescent bulbs, but provide less than 50 percent of the light.

"Achieving an equal look with LED lights saves approximately 15 percent of the power consumption, so there is some savings," Brandano explained. "But we're more in tune with using less power when we can by having displays lit for fewer hours, or even totally off during those days considered slower. There is more savings in how you design the display and when you have them on."

Avoid the landfill

The recycling of used lights could take hold in the future if it creates enough material volume nationwide to find buyers in the recycling market, said Fred Rosenthal of the Rosenthal Group, a St. Charles-based recycling and waste management firm.

"The bottom line with recycling is cost," Rosenthal said. "Basically everything we use can be recycled, it's just at what cost.

"In today's recycling market there is a limited demand for these commodities," Rosenthal added. "There is no clear answer as to how we get people and businesses to recycle more. We continue to educate but it really boils down to cost. There are buyers for recyclable commodities but it does have to be in volume and unless you generate tons of material, one can often expect it to end up in the landfill."

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