Don’t Throw Your Old Christmas Lights in the Trash—Do This Instead
Have you bought new string lights for the holidays, and don’t know what to do with the tangled-up old strings you have? Learn how to recycle Christmas lights the right way—and give them a chance at a new life.
If you’ve been throwing your dead Christmas lights in the trash, we get it. After spending what seems like all 25 days of December checking every bulb or meticulously hanging holiday lights only to have them go dark mid-Yuletide, few things feel as good as slam-dunking a ball of dead holiday lights in the trash bin. But as much relief as you might feel from jamming those wires and bulbs in the circular file, there are far better (and more sustainable) things to do with your dead or unwanted holiday lights.
In some cases, you want to opt for a new design scheme, more energy-efficient lights, or some other change, and have working older lights you no longer need. After bringing your family holiday cheer for years, don’t your Christmas lights deserve better than the dump? It might take a little digging to determine local needs or recycling availability, but there are plenty of options for repurposing or recycling working and broken Christmas lights.
What’s inside a set of holiday lights?
There are a lot of materials inside a set of Christmas lights that contribute to making your season bright. Holiday light strings contain plastic, glass, copper, and even lead, all of which can harm the environment. If you dispose of holiday lights in the trash, they will sit in a landfill for years. Consider how many people throw out holiday lights year after year, and the ecological impact becomes painfully apparent.
If you take holiday lights to a facility that’s specially equipped to handle them, the metals and other materials can be reclaimed and reused. So, old holiday lights aren’t taking up space in a landfill, plus their components are reused.
Christine Messier, chief brand officer for MOM’s Organic Market—a company focused on sustainability—says lights from their customers go to A Better Way Recycling. The recycler “collects all lights, and then breaks them down through smelting or shredding to recover raw commodities,” says Messier. “These commodities are then used to create roofing and construction materials, piping, car batteries, other electronics, lead wheel weights, flatware, jewelry, and more,” she says. Here’s what you can do with holiday lights to reduce their impact on the environment.
1. Take holiday lights to a local waste management facility.
If fixing your holiday lights isn’t an option, call or look up your local waste management facility and learn about their process for recycling them. Some facilities can strip the lights down themselves, while others might not accept them at all. It’s also likely that the facility has a contract with a third party that will pick up the holiday lights, reduce them to recyclable elements, and get them back into the manufacturing chain.
More than likely, the community will accept holiday lights and similar waste on certain days or the month; some cities also accept lights during the holidays, even the same post-holiday weeks in which they accept trees (just be sure to remove the lights from the tree). If unsure, check with your city’s solid waste or recycling department. Messier says that MOM’s used to offer light bulb recycling, “but now that has become much more widely accepted.” She adds that community recycling programs like the one in Montgomery County, Maryland, publish sections on their websites about light bulb recycling tips and locations. Once you know the place and time, box the lights up and take them to the facility. Foremost, don’t just drop lights into curbside recycling bins; they can tangle and damage machines or even workers.
2. Inquire whether a local home improvement center or store accepts them.
Sometimes the best way to recycle some holiday lights is to take them right back to where you (probably) got them. Check with local home improvement stores like Lowe’s, The Home Depot, Ace Hardware, True Value, or Menards to find out whether and when they accept broken holiday lights. These stores often have a drop-off section specifically meant for holiday lights, but it might not be open year-round.
You also might find that other types of stores offer light dropoff around the holidays. MOM’s Organic Market has stores in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Washington, D.C., and surrounding states. “Each year, we run the Holiday Light Recycling Drive from the day after Thanksgiving to January 31,” says Messier. The company recycled 11.6 tons of holiday lights from MOM’s customers last year alone.
3. Ship holiday lights for recycling—and receive a discount for your efforts.
Buying new holiday lights every year isn’t cheap, and trashing them is basically like throwing good money down the drain. What if you could recycle your holiday lights while also getting a discount on the next set?
That’s just what some companies do, including Holiday LEDs and Christmas Light Source. If you mail in a set of dead holiday lights, both companies will give you a coupon off your next purchase. Both programs run year-round and accept broken lights, making this route one of the most convenient ways to recycle dead holiday lights that others can’t use, even while doing spring cleaning. Check the companies’ websites for boxing instructions and to learn more about their discounts, as well as what they do with the lights.
4. Mail in or drop off Christmas lights to support local charities.
Believe it or not, those old holiday lights still hold some value, and there are agencies out there that recycle them for a good cause. For example, once Christmas Light Source receives your holiday lights, you’ll receive your discount—and, as we said, they’ll go to work recycling the materials in the lights. What’s more, Christmas Light Source spreads lots of goodwill by donating all the recycling proceeds to Toys for Tots.
Although some nationwide companies sustainably recycle Christmas lights—and even donate proceeds to charities—small, local programs might welcome your working but unwanted decorations to use for displays or give away as holiday outreach. It might take some research, but keep an eye out for stories from local news, friends, and neighbors to spot organizations that can use the lights you no longer need. For example, contact:
- Senior citizen centers
- Churches (and their community outreach programs)
- Assisted living centers and nursing homes
- Migrant shelters and relief programs
- Domestic abuse shelters
- After-school programs
- Homelessness assistance programs
5. Donate working strings to a nonprofit thrift store.
If you have working lights that you prefer to donate for local resale to support a nonprofit, check with your local Habitat for Humanity ReStore locations. In 2022, some locations of the home-building charity were looking for unwanted holiday lights (broken or working) to recycle. The nonprofit relies on volunteers to break down the lights.
Goodwill stores will take working lights and in some areas, they also might accept nonworking lights for recycling. Other options include the Salvation Army, GreenDrop, and local nonprofits. Check with your local Goodwill or other charitable thrift store’s donation department.
6. Gift gently used but working lights to neighbors or local programs or charities.
If your lights still work, but you have too many or want to change up your holiday decorating or energy use, give the lights to someone who can use them. Think about recently married couples or friends who just moved out on their own who might enjoy adding some holiday cheer without adding to their budget. Make them (and other gently used decorations) an early gift, along with some hot cocoa, of course.
You might know of friends, neighbors, or coworkers who lack the funds to buy new lights or appreciate those industrious neighbors on the next block who want to add to their annual light show. Contact them or offer free lights on a neighborhood app like NextDoor or Facebook Marketplace.
7. Take advantage of offers to trade in incandescent lights.
According to GE, incandescent and halogen bulbs usually are not recyclable. The reason boils down to a tiny portion of recyclable material inside the bulbs vs. the ecological impact of extracting those materials. Outdoor Christmas lights with compact fluorescent bulbs can go to recycling to capture the glass and metals inside.
LED lights are more sustainable because they use up to 80 percent less energy than incandescent lights. Some of the hardware stores or recycling programs above will offer special promotions to encourage shoppers to trade their incandescent Christmas lights for new LED sets. However, if you are getting rid of unwanted LED Christmas lights, don’t throw them in the trash. It’s advised to always recycle LED lights and keep them from landfills, because they contain tiny microchips made with trace amounts of heavy metals like lead.
8. Repurpose old lights.
Those large incandescent bulbs are colorful and kind of scream Christmas season, so paint the old or dead bulbs to hide the metal base and add glitter, ribbon, or paint to the bulb using some spray adhesive. Connect them to a wreath, as Etsy seller gatorgrrl does here, or to greenery. You also can make a fun arrangement in a hurricane vase or on a strand for a fireplace or doorway. If it’s hard to let go of vintage (but working) family lights despite their high energy use, keep one or two strands and use them in a small display, vase, or centerpiece instead of around a large tree, and donate the rest for recycling.