While Santa heads back to the North Pole after the holidays, the world's holiday lights head to processing centers in a recycling zone in Shijiao, China. And it's not just a few strands; the region handles roughly 20 million pounds of discarded lights annually in a recycling process that readies the raw materials to be reborn into as many new products as possible.
It takes some work and fairly recent green upgrades for at least one of the factories — the Yong Chang Processing Plant — to ready the used lights for a new life. Adam Minter recently described the process and the reason why we ship so many lights to China in a column for The Atlantic.
Workers first untangle the lights and then toss them into shredders. The shredders take the lights down to millimeter-sized particles, and mixes them with water creating a mud-like substance. This is then shoveled into sloping, vibrating tables where it is covered with water. Much like how a prospector pans for gold, the shaking tables separate the materials down to their sum parts. The copper from the wire and brass from the bulb sockets are separated from lighter materials such as plastic and glass, and end up in separate collection baskets.
The water, contaminated by the process, is reclaimed and used again and again throughout the system.
Previously, processors in Shijiao might have burned the lights to quickly get through the rubber and plastic insulation to get to the metals inside. As Chinese exports have grown over the years, businesses there recognized the need for sourcing as much of the raw materials for goods as possible at home, and thus the more complete recycling efforts such as those at Yong Chang.
Instead of burning the insulation it can now be repurposed into things like the soles of slippers. While it was a business drive that led the green innovations it still has a huge impact on the environment.
Why send 20 million pounds of used holiday lights to China and not recycle in the U.S.? We simply don't have the industrial demand for the end products and that forces our recyclers to place some materials in landfills. The Chinese simply are able to use more of the raw materials and likewise our recyclers don't have to pay for it to be buried.
So, in a strange twist of fate, it is greener for us to send used Christmas tree lights to China than deal with them at home. In fact, many recycling centers that collect used lights here will likely sell and ship them to China anyway.
In yet another strange twist of fate, it is highly likely that most of our holiday lights are imported from China in the first place. So let's keep their whirlwind trip around the globe to a minimum and try to re-use those strands as often as possible before they hit the trash.
View a video of the factory.
Via The Atlantic