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Around this time every year, millions of American households not only toss out their Christmas trees, but also, millions of strands of burnt-out Christmas lights. While they are purportedly placed for recycling, most would end up in trash if it were not for a tiny town called Shijiao located all the way in Southern China.
That's because, while there is no market for the lights in the USA, there is a great demand for the raw materials that emanate from these discarded decorations in China, an opportunity that the small town of Shijiao has capitalized on, for almost twenty years.
Like most of the country's recycling areas, Shijiao's popularity rose thanks to the availability of abundant cheap labor and lax environmental laws. Today, over 20 million pounds of discarded lights make their way to the town's nine recycling facilities.
Once there, they go through a rather complicated process that separates the flecks of precious metals (copper from the wire and brass from the light sockets) from the plastic and glass that the insulation and bulbs are made from.
The strands are first manually untangled and then placed into a shredder that chops them up into tiny pieces. These are then mixed with water and shaken - upon which the heavier metal flecks flow in one direction, while the lighter plastic and glass flow in another - similar to how old miners used to pan gold. The respective materials are then accumulated and sold to Chinese manufacturers who turn them into all kinds of different products including, slipper soles!
So the next time you buy a product made in China, be sure to look at it closely - For somewhere in them you may see a glimmer of your tossed Christmas lights.
Resources: theatlantic.com, huffingtonpost.com, odditycentral.com