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The Long, Secret Afterlife of Recycled Christmas Lights

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A single strand of broken lights is nearly worthless, but 20 million pounds of broken lights is a valuable commodity. Welcome to the Christmas tree light recycling capital of the world, also known a Shijao, China.

Shijao has built an entire industry on mining the trash of Americans. Every year, 20 million pounds of Christmas lights are ground into gloop here, separated into brass, cooper, and plastic. Eventually, they'll be turned into everything from slippers to brand new gadgets.


In his book Junkyard Planet, journalist Adam Minter travels to Shijao, where he encounters Christmas lights by the 2200-pound bale. He describes the process of shredding the lights, basically unmaking them into raw materials again:

With thunderous groans, the shredders pulverize the tangles into millimeter-sized bits of plastic and metal and then spit them out as a mudlike goop. Next to those shredders are three vibrating ten-foot-long tables. As workers shovel the goopy shredded lights onto their surface, a thin film of water washes over them, bleeding out very distinct green and gold streaks. I step closer: the green streak is plastic, and it washes off the table's edge; the gold streak is copper, and ti slowly moves down the length of the table until it falls off the end, into a basket, 95 percent pure and ready for resmelting.


Labor in China is indeed cheap, but that's not the only reason China has become the world's leader in turning trash into gold (or any other valuable metal). Because we buy so many goods made in China (including, of course, Christmas decorations), cargo chips are streaming from China to the U.S. On the return trip, however, these ships have nothing to carry, sometimes even going back empty. So these cargo ships end up carrying our trash: waste paper to be made into toilet paper, soda cans into aluminum cladding. Christmas lights are just one small slice.

But these Christmas lights are a particular good example of ingenuity driven by necessity. When Shijao factories first began recycling these lights, they burned away the plastic insulation to get at the valuable brass and copper underneath. But as the price of oil has gone up in China, plastic, an oil-based commodity, has become more valuable, too. At one particular factory Minter visits, the owners have found a way to even recycle that plastic, which is sold to a company that makes slipper soles.

With Christmas behind us and new gadgets in hand, it's just the right time to read Junkyard Planet. As we revel in our new things, spend a minute thinking about the afterlife of your old ones. And recycle! Before ditching any broken lights in the dumpster, check with your local recycling organizations for where you can drop off them in your town. National chains such as Home Depot will accept lights for recycling.