Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
It’s time to recycle or trade them in, instead.
Maybe your neighborhood is already dripping with holiday twinkle lights—or maybe you’ve at least started to hear neighbors cursing when they unpack boxes to find puzzling, tangled strands that are impossible to unwind.
Americans go a little crazy when it comes to decking the halls—and porches, and roofs, and basically every other surface—with sparkling bulbs. Some more so than others:
Columbus, Georgia, homeowner Barbara Taylor told the local NBC affiliate that she spends about $3,000 a year on Christmas decorations for the outside of her house, pictured above. The power company installed additional outlets to light her thousands of strands and characters. Unsurprisingly, she described the electric bill as “astronomical.”
But even people with less eye-popping displays can go through a lot of lights. Each season, 20 million pounds of our busted holiday lights are shipped to China, where they’re dismantled into brass, copper, and plastic parts and then remade into new consumer goods, Gizmodo reported.
There’s an alternative to trashing your smashed or burned-out strands: recycling. Many municipalities don’t permit residents to throw these in the rest of the curbside recyclables, because they can leak chemicals or muck up the waste stream. But some organizations coordinate programs specifically designed to process these products. Maggie Mattacola, executive director of operations at the Recycling Association of Minnesota, told the local Star Tribune that the “Recycle Your Holidays” initiative recycled more than 104,000 pounds of lights last year.
Plus, through November 15, Home Depot stores nationwide are hosting trade-ins where customers can drop off old lights and receive vouchers for discounts new LED strands, which use 90 percent less energy than other varieties, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council. A number of e-commerce sites do this, too.
Here are some tips to keep yours in working order:
Prevent tangles. To fend off the dreaded light knot, wind the strands around a cylindrical coffee tin instead of just shoving them to the back of your closet, suggests Real Simple. Another tactic: wrap them around a flat piece of cardboard and tape them in place.
Try fixing a “broken” strand yourself. Maybe all is not lost. Popular Mechanics claims it’s not too hard to try a DIY approach if you’ve got some simple tools. Keep some on hand and test the lights before you start raging.