Lake, Cook County recyclers provide Christmas lights an afterlife
Barrington's downtown is decorated with pretty Christmas lights at the annual Christmas Tree Lighting, where children can meet Santa with free hot cocoa for everyone. | Mark Ukena~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: January 25, 2013 8:50AM
It breaks down into sand, copper and plastic, but in the process, it also breaks down into money.
“We wouldn’t be collecting Christmas lights if it wasn’t economically viable,” said Pete Adrian, the operator of a regional program that saves the casualties of the holiday season from a useless, and profitless, afterlife.
Many of Chicago’s north and northwest suburbs are collecting nonfunctional strings of Christmas lights and donating them to the Solid Waste Agency of Lake County or the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County. The collection points include Sunset Foods in Long Grove and Buffalo Grove’s Village Hall and police station.
The agencies then transfer them to recycling businesses, which salvage the raw materials and bring them to new use, instead of a landfill.
“Things are going well,” said Cameron Ruen, marketing coordinator for the Solid Waste Agency of Northern Cook County, which has passed old Christmas lights on to Elgin Recycling for 14 years.
Adrian reported that the Lake County program sends its holiday refuse to Sims Recycling Solutions in West Chicago. He also provided a breakdown of how the strings break down.
“The lights go through ... I’ll call it a ‘chopper,’” he said. “They basically pulverize it.”
By weight, a string of lights is 50-60 percent plastic, Adrian said, and 25-to-35 percent glass. The recyclers, however, are after the lightest ingredient: the copper wire.
Copper is valuable and easy to turn back into new wire, he explained.
The glass is ground to sand, for use on snowy or icy roads. Because this kind of glass is designed for high heat, it cannot be converted into bottles. Bringing it back to sand gives it a new use, Adrian said, “but the problem is sand is the most plentiful element on Earth. To create sand mechanically from another material, and then for me to try to market it to someone who’s not my next-door neighbor, the economics just aren’t there.”
Recyclers turn the plastic into just about anything, Adrian continued.
Plastics have proven themselves universally useful, Adrian said, pointing out that the Chicago Transportation Authority is even making new railroad ties out of the kind of recycled plastic found in light strings.
“They have a longer lifespan, they’re quieter, they don’t rot,” Adrian said. “They can blend a lot of weird things together.”
Both county recycling agencies are still collecting the materials, so neither had final numbers to release. Both, however, estimated they would have enough old lights to fill up a block’s worth of heavily decorated homes.
“These lights that may not have any value to you still have some economic value to recyclers,” Adrian said. “Otherwise, they’re ending up just sitting there, for eternity.”