Seasonal recycling program wanes with copper prices

Sue Welna of the Welna Ace Hardware stores hoists an armload of holiday light strands bound for the recycler. Photo by Mira Klein

Recycled holiday lights aren’t as profitable as they used to be, and it’s putting a dent in the ability of Minneapolis residents to do good with their old and burned-out bulbs.

Through a partnership with the Recycling Association of Minnesota, Ace Hardware stores around Minneapolis used to offer a complimentary drop-off service where people could leave their dead bulbs — and purchase some conveniently located replacements.

RAM did most of the legwork, providing collection bins to each store and coming around two or three times during the holiday season to collect the old lights, which were sold as scrap metal.

“We had a very comprehensive route,” recalled Brita Sailer, executive director of RAM.

Sailer knows. She sometimes she even drove the pick-up vehicle herself, traversing the city’s 27 Ace partner sites.

But that program ended in 2015 when it became too expensive for RAM to operate.

As it turns out, the most valuable part of holiday lights to recycle is not the lights themselves. It is actually the copper wire running through the strand that connects them. But copper prices are down, so metal scrappers and recycling facilities get less payback.

Copper prices have fluctuated significantly over the past decade. From a low in 2008 following the global financial collapse, prices climbed steeply until 2010 before starting to decline again. By 2015 — the year the RAM-ACE partnership disbanded — prices had fallen significantly.

The program “was no longer sustainable,” Sailer said. “Copper prices went down, the cost of collection went up, and we were stuck there in the middle.”

While RAM scaled back its holiday light recycling program in Minneapolis, it was doing the same statewide. Now, instead of facilitating this recycling directly, which RAM used to do through its Recycle Your Holidays program, RAM maintains a Minnesota-wide list of drop-off locations that accept lights.

After the RAM partnership ended, a cascade of events ensued. Without RAM as a recycling partner, Ace could no longer afford to store and recycle the old lights themselves. So the consortium of Ace hardware stores in the Twin Cities decided to end their old holiday light collection all together.

Jim Welna, co-owner of Welna II Hardware, an Ace affiliate in Seward, said he remembers the days of partnering with RAM during the holiday season.

“[RAM] just made it really easy for us,” he said.

And because it was a group effort, the Ace stores could coordinate advertising for the program as well, upping the number of residents who made the trek to generate some recycling out of such a consumption-heavy time of year.

Even though many Ace locations stopped taking old holiday lights altogether, Welna II Hardware still operates its own independent recycling program.

“We decided we really wanted to do it, and even if it cost us we were going to pay for it,” Welna said.

If they pay for a service to pick up the old lights, it costs Welna II Hardware $1.50 per pound. Some years Welna decides to drop off the lights himself, which he brings to Express Metals in Hopkins.

Last year he delivered three 55-gallon buckets of holiday lights over the course of December and January. He made about two dollars in return.

Despite the lack of Ace-wide advertising, Welna hasn’t seen a slowdown in the volume of old holiday lights people drop off at his store. But this doesn’t necessarily suggest a trend in the volume of recycled holiday lights around the city as a whole. As Welna speculated, “There are just fewer places to bring them, so places that do still collect are seeing more.”

Other recycling operations don’t have to worry so much about the finicky prices of copper when it comes to holiday lights.

Hennepin County operates two recycling facilities that will take lights, one in Brooklyn Park and one in Bloomington. Angie Timmons, an environmental educator with the county, explained that the county can afford to absorb the loss on holiday light recycling.

“We are in a unique situation where our [lights] are managed through a state electronics recycling contract,” she said. The light strings are just thrown in with all the other electronics cords.

A drop in holiday light recycling isn’t necessarily a bad thing, especially if it means people are just re-using their old lights more. As Timmons pointed out, this is especially true as more people switch to longer-lasting LED strands.

Even so, Minneapolis residents will continue to find old boxes labeled “Holiday Decorations” in the basement containing useless lights from 2005. And when the end of January arrives, countless holiday enthusiasts will still realize that their decorations have reached the end of their lifespan.

When that time comes, hopefully Minneapolis residents will find a way to dispose of their once-bright bulbs responsibly.