At home, many people wind up strings of lights and pack them away for next year. But the I-Team has found that all those street-side lights never make it to next year.
In late October every year, contractors and city crews start trimming the trees with millions and millions of lights.
From just after Thanksgiving to the New Year, the lights are on in the South Loop, wound across downtown and along the Gold Coast to the zoos in Lincoln Park and in Brookfield and at the airports. Three months after crews trim the trees, they trim the lights.
"We want to be efficient and get these lights cut down between 30 and 45 days, so we can get all the equipment, ladders, the vehicles, off the grounds so people can enjoy the zoo, the animals and what's on display and make the zoo nice and green and friendly," said Bryan Anderson, Lincoln Park Zoo.
At the Lincoln Park Zoo this week, workers in cherry pickers using wire snippers and shears started to cut down one and a half million lights strung around tree trunks and branches. The I-Team found truckloads of chopped-up lights at the zoo, cut down and thrown away after being used for just over a month.
Christmas trees are being recycled into mulch at Brookfield Zoo, but 90 percent of their nearly one million lights will end up in landfills.
"We would love to recycle. If anyone knows of a way to do it, we have not found an outlet that would recycle them. It's a combination of the wire, the plastic coating, the bulbs, and generally they don't recycle them, as far as I know," said Gail Gorski, Brookfield Zoo.
Along State Street, tens of thousands of lights have already been cut down and thrown out. "Trashed" is how the director of Chicago's Loop Alliance describes it. Former I-Team intern Jessica Bobula spotted crews contracted by the city cutting down lights near the Daley Plaza this month, and she started investigating for a Northwestern Medill journalism project.
"I really wanted to know why they throw them away, or whatever they could do with them that is better for the environment, saving them or giving them to somebody else," said Bobula.
The project supervisor told her it was much cheaper to just cut down the Christmas lights and buy new ones every year.
"One of my inner demons is just the fact that it is done so much, but we're talkin' about companies that are trying to make a living and unfortunately some of that waste has to happen," said Jack Lawson, contractor supervisor.
The city contractor, McFarlane Douglass of Burr Ridge, puts up lights in the Daley Plaza; along Michigan Avenue; in Millennium Park and at both Chicago airports, all of which are cut down every year and thrown out.
The city contractor and others, including one hired by Lincoln Park Zoo, say they recycle the miles of Christmas lights.
In truth, only part of each strand is recycled by a process that may create more of an environmental problem. At General Metal in Chicago, they sell the discarded lights to a middleman who ships them all the way to China for "recycling." Cheap Chinese labor strips out the thin copper wire - the only part of the used product that has any value.
Other recycling plants in Illinois chop up the Christmas lights to extract the copper. The PVC plastic and glass bulbs end up in landfills.
There are other options. While conventional strings of Christmas lights burn out after 2000 hours, newly designed LED lights could be used for several years but are more expensive. Lincoln Park and Brookfield Zoo officials say they are also slowly switching over to LED lights.
"Right now, its only about 10 percent, but we are adding them every year because that is the way to go as a conservation organization too," said Gorski.
Brookfield Zoo will take down and reuse the LED lights, and that really seems to be the future of outdoor Christmas lights. The Morton Arboretum Christmas display out in Lisle is now 100 percent LED, and they are reusing the lights year after year.