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The ghost of recycling past, present and future

Last weekend I visited the biggest garden centre in the Netherlands to experience its annual Winter Wonderland market. The XL store transformed three halls to showcase its extensive collection of Christmas trees, lights, reindeer sculptures and other holiday-inspired decorations.

A perfect storm of consumerism and Covid-induced boredom saw many people admire the miniature Christmas village built by a crew of 15 over the course of seven weeks. Alongside the traditional holiday scenes, there were mountains, ski slopes, skating rinks, carnivals complete with spinning rides and, of course, Santa’s residence at the North Pole. It was a feast for the eye.

After traversing the various bridges and platforms to witness the expo from all angles, my glance fell on industrial shelves lining the walls. So many boxes, neatly packed, atop each other. Familiar miniatures like the hot chocolate booth and a kissing couple underneath the mistletoe next to humorous newcomers – like Rudolf’s sleigh wash.

More products are added to the list each year and people are happy to buy them. Granted, the decorations cost a pretty penny (the average price was about EUR 40) though consumers in high spirits acted like they were being handed out for free. Honestly, I had to remind myself: ‘No, you don’t need more stuff’. Even though the animated snowfall paradrop tower looked pretty cool. Now I’m in my thirties I’ve realised I want to collect memories, not gadgets.

I’m glad I decided against buying anything because, as you can imagine, the queues were a nightmare by closing time. My boyfriend, mother and I squeezed our way out to have lunch. While dipping my apfelstrudel in vanilla sauce, I was thinking about how the holiday has become synonymous with gifts, fancy dinners and impressive garden displays.

Around 150 million Christmas lights sets are sold in the US alone annually. It’s likely the lockdown lifestyle will boost sales even further this year. For instance, research firm Kantar reports that Christmas lights sales in the UK in November 2020 went up by 238% in the same month a year before as consumers took the opportunity to ‘celebrate at home’ at a time they couldn’t go out.

The question remains of what to do with our old Christmas lights? The smart thing to is check whether stores in your area have a dedicated take-back programme. That way, you can simply drop them off while shopping for new lights. Another option is to wait for local recycling drives.

To my knowledge, there are no kerbside collection initiatives for lights, only for Christmas trees (which makes for a very sad visual on the morning of 1 January). I’ll add that, as with most recycling, options vary greatly depending on where you are. This doesn’t help when it comes to niche products that have yet to hit the waste management mainstream.

I suppose it comes down to doing the right thing. It’s a fitting sentiment for the holiday season (what it really is about) – though I hope more retailers and municipalities will show up with some extra muscle to ensure our old lights and miscellaneous e-scrap will find their way to the recycler’s workshop.

That leaves me to say; I wish you all a very merry Christmas and a very happy and hopefully healthy new year! All the best for 2022!

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