Q. Dear Umbra,
What is the appropriate way to discard Christmas lights that no longer work?
Los Angeles, CA
A. Dearest Kathy,
‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through LA, decoration disposal questions threatened to spoil the day … I could go on, but you probably have halls to deck and holiday cheer to spread, so I’ll reluctantly stop thinking of words that rhyme with LEDs (melodies!) and start thinking of festive advice for you. In fact, because strings of burned-out Christmas bulbs are just the beginning of the holiday-related trash many of us face this time of year, I’d like to expand our discussion to include a few more vexing disposal issues.
From broken ornaments to crumpled wrapping paper to 12-foot Fraser firs bedecked with baubles, the holiday season is notorious for leaving us with a serious trash hangover when January rolls around. We Americans toss out 25 percent more garbage in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s than any other time of year — an estimated 25 million tons of landfill-clogging stuff. Clearly, thinking a little more carefully about how we handle end-of-life care for our seasonal accouterments — and how to reduce the trash we generate in the future — is a gift we can give ourselves, this year and every year. Here’s a plan for some of the most common items.
What: Christmas lights
How to dispose: Good news, Kathy: Bum Christmas lights can be recycled by specialty outfits that break them down into their plastic, glass, copper, and brass parts. Several large retailers, such as Home Depot and Ace Hardware, accept them for free (and sometimes, in exchange for a discount on new LED lights); if you strike out there, you can mail them to out-of-state recyclers (check the link above for specifics).
Next year: I’ve sung the praises of LED bulbs before, but a reminder never hurts. If you’re replacing your lights, opt for the super-energy-efficient, long-lasting LED variety to save oodles of electricity and cash.
What: Christmas tree
How to dispose: If you went with a real tree, this is a simple matter: Many communities will pick up bare trees at the curb post-Noel, while others operate drop-off centers (check with your local waste-disposal professionals). Real trees can easily be recycled into mulch or compost. Unfortunately, artificial trees, most of which are made from the dreaded PVC plastic, face only one possible destination when their final day arrives: The landfill. If you have an artificial tree, the best thing to do is use it as many seasons as possible, or donate it to someone else who will.
Next year: If you’re not saddled with a pile of PVC, by all means go for the real tree — local and responsibly grown, if possible. Or, even better, try one of these alternatives, from live trees you plant later to pine-cone wreaths to decorated drying racks.
How to dispose: Did you know these shiny, silvery strands used to be made from lead? Unfortunately, today’s tinsel isn’t much better. Not only is it non-recyclable, but the stuff also comes from PVC (woe is me!). If you’re already stocked up, reuse your tinsel as long as you can before sending it to the landfill.
Next year: Opt for non-toxic accents that are compostable or reusable instead. I’m thinking popcorn garlands, ribbons, beads, or paper chains, and I’ll bet you creative readers can dream up more.
What: Wreaths, holly, mistletoe, pine cones, etc.
How to dispose: This is an easy one: Remove any bows, ribbons, wire, or ornaments (save ’em for next Yule), then simply compost these classy, all-natural decorations.
Next year: Make your own woodsy décor by gathering (where it’s permitted) evergreen boughs, pine cones, branches, and even mistletoe for DIY projects. If that sounds like one too many entries on your holiday to-do list, buy decorations without glitter, flocking, or other add-ons that make composting difficult.
What: Wrapping paper and gift bags
How to dispose: First, reuse it for the gifts of Christmas Future (this is easier if you unwrap carefully). Gift bags in particular can go the distance; my family has happily exchanged the same slightly wrinkled ones dozens of times. When those papers and bags are finally tapped out, go ahead and recycle them — if they’re the non-shiny kind, that is. Shiny papers sometimes cause complications down at the recycling plant. And don’t ball up the other wrapping papers, as that can also throw the sorting equipment for a loop. Tissue paper, by the way, should go straight to the compost; it’s often made from recycled fibers too short to recycle again.
Next year: Skip the disposable holiday wrap and dress up your presents in newspaper, comics, or paper grocery bags you already have lying around; decorative tins; or reusable cloth gift bags. In a pinch, pillowcases or dish towels work just fine for the non-fussy recipients on your list.
How to dispose: It’s not the holidays in the Fisk household without someone accidentally dislodging a glass globe after a third glass of eggnog. This type of glass must almost always be thrown away (though recyclers sometimes accept rigid plastic trinkets, so check with your hauler). Hand the intact ones down to your grandchildren, or donate them.
Next year: Keep Aunt Mildred away from the tree. Or go for durable, natural wood ornaments.
Merry Gristmahanukwanzakah, Kathy and all! I’ll be off celebrating too — just as soon as I come up with something that rhymes with Gristmahanukwanzakah.