Why Keeping Your Old Christmas Lights is Better than Upgrading to LED

Christmas lights with a bokeh-effect background

It’s very easy to spend money on new, more power-efficient gadgets and feel justified. But when it comes to Christmas lights, as with most purchases, you’re better off using or fixing your existing incandescent lights, rather than upgrading to LEDs before you need to.

We know this because we asked Adam Minter, author of the new Secondhand: Travels in the New Global Garage Sale, but also Junkyard Planet, a book that includes a detailed examination of the thrown-out Christmas lights cycle. Minter also explained the global market for “low-quality wire” in a video he made with iFixit:

At the time of Junkyard Planet’s 2015 publication, Chinese recyclers were buying more than 20 million pounds of American discarded Christmas and other holiday lights every year, and paying decent money for them. They had developed a means of efficiently separating and sifting apart the glass, copper, rubber, and plastic from light strands. The rubber and plastic went to other nearby manufacturers, like the flip-flop maker mentioned in Minter’s video. The recovered copper was highly valuable in an expanding, ever-producing China.

Image from video of workers in a Christmas light recycling plant in Shijao, China.
Holiday lights recycling in a plant in Shijao, China. Video frame via Adam Minter.

Now the ongoing U.S.-China trade war, and China’s “National Sword” importing restrictions enacted in 2018, have driven prices for recycled holiday lights from 25 cents a pound down to five cents, as of last year. Minter says that many markets for tossed lights have moved from China to other locations, including the U.S. But these other recyclers aren’t situated in affordable proximity to manufacturers that can use the plastic and rubber byproduct, so it’s more likely to be landfilled or incinerated.

That is to say: recycling your tossed Christmas lights is far less of a net good than it used to be, so you should use them while they still work—or are still able to be fixed. There are certainly power savings to LED bulbs, but it’s on the order of one cent per hour for 500 bulbs, as detailed by Rhett Allain at Wired. That can add up, but unless you’re setting up a Griswold-ian wonderland, it’s likely not enough to offset the cost of new bulbs, in money or carbon.

“Generally, the most carbon-intensive portion of any manufactured product’s lifecycle is the production portion,” Minter wrote us. As an example, Apple’s own estimates claim that 83% of the carbon emissions associated with the lifecycle of an iPhone 11 Pro come from its production, Minter noted, while less than 1% comes from end-of-life recycling. While Minter has never found a life-cycle assessment of any holiday lights—we definitely believe he has looked—he imagines their ecological costs to be much the same.

Hand holding a Christmas lights plug exposing the fuses inside.
The fuses you may or may not have known were tucked inside a holiday lights plug.

It’s also important to note that your existing holiday lights can likely be fixed, as they’re a fairly simple device. One of the most popular iFixit Answers posts of all time, and the recurring champ of the holiday season, is “Half of the string of LED Christmas lights doesn’t light up.” We turned that into a troubleshooting guide to Christmas lights a few years back. If some or all of your lights don’t work, you should run through its recommended steps:

  1. Unplug the entire strand before you start working on them
  2. Check the fuses, usually in the plug body
  3. Check how each bulb is seated in its socket
  4. Look for corroded sockets and clean them
  5. Remove an irreparably damaged socket to save the rest of the lights

If you can’t get your holiday lights to work, no matter what steps you take, check to see if a local agency or another site is specifically accepting holiday lights for recycling. Your standard municipal recycling bucket is likely not the best place to toss the strand.

Top image by Steve Jurvetson/Flickr