I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with outdoor Christmas lights. Growing up in northern Ohio, my father always waited until a few days before Christmas to begin stringing the lights around our front porch, and I had to help. With temperatures well below freezing, it was hard to hold the wire-staples, and hitting your frozen fingers with a hammer was never fun. Still, the finished result was important to the season.
This thought must be shared by a vast majority of Americans, whose string millions of lights in their yards before the Holiday season. One can even see the colors at 30,000 feet during night-time air travel.
Still, the environmentalist in me worries about the energy use and other impacts of such a frivolous activity. The proliferation of outdoor lighting has a variety of impacts on nature and human health (http://blogs.nicholas.duke.edu/citizenscientist/is-it-better-to-light-a-single-candle-than-to-curse-the-darkness/). Would not the same money go farther at the local food pantry? Can we have outdoor lights that leave very little environmental footprint?
In my youth, the outdoor lights we used were about 5 inches long and burned 7 watts of power. Today, the cost of burning a string of 100 is about 9 cents each hour. Today, most outdoor bulbs are much smaller, but just as bright. LED (Light-emitting Diode) bulbs cost almost nothing to burn. The difference is readily apparent if you grab an old-fashioned outdoor bulb (hot) versus and LED (cool). The older bulbs are less efficient because they generate so much heat inadvertently for each lumen of light generated. An LED may cost a little more, but they last longer and use much less energy.
So, what is a downside to LED bulbs? Compared to a traditional bulb that uses a tungsten filament, LED bulbs are loaded with a variety of trace metals that make the electronics work. Both LED and CFB bulbs can be considered hazardous waste by EPA and California State standards. Amidst the other impacts of landfills, we certainly don’t need copper, lead and zinc in their drainage waters. Although not used in holiday lights, CFBs have a significant component of mercury vapor inside. These and other specialty “rare earth” metals are of enough value to be recovered, recycled and reused in the manufacturing process.
So, this year, as you consider holiday lighting, consider a switch to LED lightbulbs. But, when they burn out, make sure you remember to take them to your local electronics recycling facility to avoid contamination of the environment.
Lim, S.R., D. Kang, O.A. Ogunseitan and J.M. Schoenung. 2013. Potential environmental impacts from the metals in incandescent, compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), and Light-emitting Diode (LED) bulbs. Environmental Science and Technology 47: 1040-1047.
Xue, M.Q. and Z.M. Xu. 2017. Application of life cycle assessment on electronic waste management: A review. Environmental Management 59: 693-707.