Want to go green with a fun recycling project? How about red, yellow, and green? When I was eight years old, my dad bought me an old traffic light for my birthday. He and I later painted it, fixed it up, and got it working again. It soon became part of my bedroom décor and almost 25 years later still adorns my home.
At the time, he bought it for me because I had a love (and still do) for traffic lights. But, beyond being one incredible birthday gift, it also reminds me that municipalities across the United States decommission thousands of traffic lights on an annual basis, most never to return to service.
What happens to those old traffic lights that never live to flash red, yellow, or green light again? While some of these 25-to-50-pound hulks of metal and plastic get recycled for scrap, many simply succumb to a sad fate in a landfill.
How My Dad and I Recycled My Old Traffic Light
My dad rescued my traffic light from the junk heap from Mike Hunter Traffic Signals in Central Florida (I can’t find any listings for this place anymore, so I imagine they have long since ceased business). At the time, he had to pay $30 for the entire piece, a three-signal Crouse Hinds Type R traffic light that has a manufacturing date of June 1981 – which just happened to be only one month after I was born.
While the signal didn’t exactly come wired for operation in the home, it came with everything you would expect a used traffic light to have, including all three cutaway visors and the red, yellow, and green lenses (interesting fast fact: in traffic light speak, the “yellow” light is usually “amber”).
Our first order of business was to paint the old traffic light, which had a federal yellow casing but three black visors. At the time (and more so the case today), most new traffic lights had black bodies and visors, and that was the color scheme I wanted my traffic signal to have, too. So, we ordered black spray paint from Scotty’s Hardware and Lumber (another name no longer in business) for 69 cents and painted the traffic light a glossy black.
Then, my dad retrofitted my signal with the electrical system from a Fisher Price traffic light we had bought as a play piece a couple years earlier.
Voila! My Crouse Hinds traffic light was working again!
How You Can Recycle an Old Traffic Light and Turn it Into Home Décor
Unlike the case in 1989, there is now eBay, which is a very popular place for individuals to go who want to buy old traffic signals. However, many of these used traffic lights have already been repainted, rewired for residential use, and have already therefore been “recycled.” These old traffic lights on eBay also normally cost a lot more than you might pay for a traffic light awaiting its final fate in the junk heap of your local traffic signal contractor.
Call your local city government office and find out who installs, maintains, and services the traffic signals in your town. Then, call that contractor and ask if they have any traffic lights that have been put out of service and may be purchased. You could be charged anywhere from $50 to $100 or more. If your local traffic control firm does not offer any used traffic lights, you may want to call other utility firms in neighboring municipalities.
Once you find an old traffic light that you can buy, your next step would be to take it home, clean it off (think of all the road dust and other debris your old signal may have accumulated after 10, 20, or more years hanging above an intersection), and assess how you will restore it. While I had the fortunate situation of already having a toy with the a compatible lighting system to retrofit my Crouse Hinds traffic light, chances are you aren’t in similar shoes. The course to go about rewiring your traffic signal will be unique to you, because you may or may not have the proper wiring already intact to get your light electrically operating right away.
Your best bet will be to get in touch with your local electronics supply store (Radio Shack may be a good place to start) and ask what parts you may need for your specific configuration. There are also many web retailers that sell traffic signal control switches and other related parts. They can also advise you on your specific situation.
While my dad and I used basic Krylon high gloss spray paint on my traffic signal, another type of paint to consider using on an old traffic light would be auto body paint. Auto paint, like regular spray paint, adheres well to primed surfaces but, unlike regular spray paint, has a harder enamel shell that may gleam more brightly an evenly than garden variety spray paint.
When painting your traffic light, don’t forget to unscrew the red, yellow, and green lenses, and remove the aluminum reflector pans, which vividly bounce light around the inside of each lit panel. Also, be sure to liberally mask all surrounding surfaces that you don’t want painted, and paint your signal in a well-ventilated area, preferably outdoors.
My dad mounted my old traffic light upright on an 18-inch by 18-inch panel of plywood, however you may choose to anchor your signal to a wall or suspend it from your old ceiling. No matter how you display your old traffic light, if you give yourself the green light on this recycling project, you will have a unique conversation piece that could liven up your game room, den, or another area of your home.