Holiday Haul

Minnesota program collects holiday lights for recycling.

Immediately following Thanksgiving (or in some overeager households, Halloween), sparkling strings of colorful holiday lights blink on around the country. A cheerful way to greet the season and brighten the long, cold winter nights, it’s hard to imagine these lights bringing anything besides joy. But when those lights inevitably fail, they usually end up in a landfill, taking valuable resources and sometimes hazardous materials with them. Moreover, many consumers are making the switch to more energy-efficient and reliable LED lights, sending their incandescent strings on a sleigh ride to the dump.

Enter “Recycle Your Holidays,” a statewide holiday light-recycling program introduced in 2009 by the Recycling Association of Minnesota (RAM). A nonprofit organization with more than 200 members from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, RAM is the Minnesota affiliate of the National Recycling Coalition. This year the St. Paul-based group expanded Recycle Your Holidays, partnering with Twin Cities television station WCCO-TV, Xcel Energy, Ace Hardware and Clean Energy Resource Teams (CERTs), a Minnesota nonprofit promoting renewable energy.

The 2010 Recycle Your Holidays program kicked off on Nov. 15, offering more than 300 light collection locations statewide. According to RAM’s executive director, Ellen Telander, the program is well on its way to exceeding this year’s goal of collecting 200,000 pounds of holiday lights.

“Recycle Your Holidays recycles every part of the light strings,” says Telander. “Even the little lights are recycled by another project partner, Green Lights Recycling. Our goal last year was to recycle 50,000 pounds of lights, which we more than doubled! We also encourage Minnesotans to make the switch to LED light strands, which will save a lot of energy.”

Recycle Your Holidays is a grass-roots program that employs adults with disabilities from local vocational centers throughout the state. These workers remove bulbs from the strings and then send the bulbs and copper wiring to separate recycling centers. It is free for businesses and organizations to participate in the program, which provides free collection bins and signs as well as free pickup of the collected lights.

“This is a great chance to combine recycling with energy efficiency,” says Joel Haskard, a coordinator with the CERTs. “People can reduce their home energy costs with new LED lights, plus there is an 85 – 90 percent reduction of energy using recycled copper from the old holiday lights versus extracting copper.” Haskard also notes that many utilities and hardware stores now offer rebates on LED holiday lights.

According to CERTs estimates, recycling 50,000 pounds of lights saves about 530,000 kilowatt hours, or about 960,000 pounds of carbon dioxide. The organization equates that to powering 55 Minnesota homes for a year, or taking 75 average-sized cars off the road. This figure assumes 20,000 pounds of lights are replaced by LEDs and homeowners with lights use them for about six hours a day from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.

Organizers say they hope the Recycle Your Holidays program provides a model for other states seeking to collect holiday lights. For more information about the program, visit