It’s that time of year again: Christmas lights will soon adorn almost every lamppost, tree and shop window in London. From Crystal Palace Park’s dizzying display of lanterns to Regent Street’s colossal swooping angels, the capital is certainly not in short supply of dazzlers.
And, sure, they look amazing. But has it ever crossed your mind just how much energy goes into powering all of these? What actually is their environmental impact? Time Out spoke to Peter Raynham, lighting expert and professor of the lit environment at University College London, to find out.
How bad is the energy usage of Christmas light displays?
‘These days, LED lights use about 3 to 10 percent of the energy of what Christmas lights used before, when filament lamps would run up to about 100 watts. The scale and scope of Christmas lights are very variable – depending on what’s being installed, it would be expected that additional Christmas lighting would use three to ten times as much power as normal road lights. The energy use is not too excessive, but the significant element of displays’ impact on the environment is actually the energy needed in making lights and shipping them here. If light displays were a massive cost on electricity, the local authorities wouldn’t be doing it.’
Are new light designs made every year?
‘Public lights tend to have many years of life. Lights move across different locations, even though it seems like we’re getting new ones each time. A random high street might have bits of equipment from Oxford Street six or seven years ago, that has probably been around eight different places in the country. There’s a big industry circulating bits around the bigger town centres.’
Do Christmas lights biodegrade?
‘Christmas lights aren’t going to biodegrade anytime soon, but you wouldn’t want that. You want to wrap them up and use them for the next five years. And if you do end up needing to dispose of them, there are usually recycling schemes in place. They’ll take the lights apart to put the plastic, metal, and everything else into the correct recycling.’
And what about light pollution?
‘If you were in a little village and you put up the style of lights you get in Oxford Street, then you'd be in big trouble, light pollution wise. Everything is relative to the street lighting already there.’
So… should we feel guilty when we admire Covent Garden’s many, many Christmas lights?
‘In winter, everything's dark and you need something to lift your mood. The occasional display is more than worth it.’