The Environmental Effects of Holiday Lighting

Holiday lighting is a long standing tradition. Each year, cities and residents turn their holiday lights on, setting a festive, cozy tone for the winter season. We believe neighborhood light displays like Oly Lightstravaganza encourage neighbors to come out and meet each other. Neighbors building relationships with other neighbors promotes a variety of good things: familiarity, awareness and improved public safety. Over the years many a neighborhood project has had its genesis in a conversation between neighbors while visiting our display.

Holiday displays also have great success in collecting donations for local charities – we’re hopeful that we’ll be able to contribute a significant amount of donations for charity as well. We currently collect for the Thurston County Food Bank.

All of that said, there’s no doubt about it, holiday lighting is resource-consumptive. Electricity waste is undoubtedly a major concern – the burning of coal, oil and natural gas, resulting in smoke, acid rain and carbon dioxide emissions is no laughing matter. The US Department of Energy reports that holiday lights consume more than six-terawatt-hours per year, equivalent to the total electricity consumption of 500,000 homes.

Other issues include potential fire hazards posed by lights, waste produced from lights that die quickly and need to be thrown out regularly, and high lead content in light strings/bulbs, which can lead to significant human health effects.

With that understanding there are many steps that can be taken to significantly reduce the environmental impact of holiday light displays. Here’s what we’ve done (so far) to offset our impact:

  • LED Lighting – Our lighting stock currently consists of about 98% LED bulbs, which use considerably less energy and last many times longer than the traditional incandescent bulbs. This means less energy used to run the display, and less waste, as the lights don’t need to be replaced as frequently. The US Department of Energy estimates that if every household switched to using LED holiday lights, the country would save about $410 million in electricity costs annually. The two chief concerns about LED bulbs – that they are more expensive and that they are more limited in color and brightness than traditional incandescents – have largely gone by the wayside with advances in technology. The cost is coming down and the variety has multiplied considerably in recent years. Also, when considering the cost, it’s important to note that because LEDs use so much less power and last so much longer than incandescents, they may actually be cheaper in the long run.
  • High Quality Products – We purchase our lighting from suppliers that offer high product quality, construction and durability to minimize string failure (and thus replacement).
  • Green Power – Our display is powered by 100% green power, via Puget Sound Energy’s green power program and on-site solar power. In 2015 we added a 5.2 kilowatt solar array to our home, which we’d wired for when we built the house in 2010 but wasn’t affordable at the time.
  • Bulk Purchasing – Lighting is purchased in bulk whenever possible in order to minimize packaging and transportation impact.
  • Lead-Free Lighting – Lead-free light strings, which are beginning to be widely available, are purchased when possible.
  • Display Hours – The display is kept on for a limited amount of time each day to reduce energy use, light pollution and annoyance of neighbors. The lights go on at 4:45 pm and off at 10:00 pm.
  • Recycling – Dead light strings are recycled. Some local options for light recycling exist (Zoolights). Lights can also be shipped to various merchants. For example, HolidayLEDs.com will supply you with a 25% off coupon for recycling lights with them.
  • Salvaged Materials – Non-light materials used to create displays are acquired from salvage stores, like our local Habitat for Humanity ReStore, and made from scraps left over from other projects. We’ve also found some bits and pieces of our displays at local garage sales, further reducing the need for new materials.
  • Safe Installation – We take safety seriously and make sure that our lights are connected using properly graded extension cords, that trip-hazards are avoided wherever possible and clearly marked where unavoidable, and that larger installation pieces are secured solidly to ensure that none of our visitors are at risk of injury.