Shijiao – Where Christmas Lights Go to Die

Ever wonder what happens to Christmas lights once you toss out into the trash at the end of every holiday season? Turns out a lot of things are made from them, including slipper soles.

Shijiao, in China, has been designated as the world’s capital for recycling old and unusable Christmas tree lights that are thrown away by Americans each year. There are at least nine factories in this small town that process large volumes of tree lights. Yong Chang Processing is one of them, the company recycles 2.2 million pounds of lights each year. Overall, the factories of the town go through over 20 million pounds. Shijiao is known for its cheap labor costs and low environmental standards. These factors make it an ideal place for a recycling zone. It has been so for around 20 years now. Needless to say, the burning of the wire from the lights causes huge amounts of black smoke to rise up in the air, which is clearly visible from the fields around town. The process adopted is the fastest way to extract copper from rubber and plastic, and hence there isn’t any alternative.

Photo © Adam Minter

It’s not just the copper that the recycling units are interested in. It’s also the insulation that wraps around the copper wire. This is a great source of cheap raw material, and many of China’s manufacturers have seen this as an opportunity to create a range of products such as slipper soles. The process of extraction isn’t very simple. At Yong Chang, workers untangle the lights which are then tossed into shredders. After being chopped to millimeter-sized pieces, they are mixed with water to form a sticky, mud-like substance. The next step is to shovel them onto a large vibrating table that slopes downwards. A thin sheen of flowing water covers the particles. As the table vibrates, the copper and brass flecks (from the wire and light bulbs) flow in one direction. The plastic and glass, which are lighter, flow in the other direction. The particles are collected in separate baskets, while the contaminated water flows into a recovery system to be re-circulated.


So almost all the tree-lights that you give away for recycling, are invariably sold to these Chinese recycling companies at about 60 cents a pound. Funny how one man’s waste, becomes another’s business opportunity.

via The Atlantic

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