“Once you see it as litter, you can’t see it any other way”

I have a confession to make; I love Christmas.  I love the sounds, the smells, the sparkly little twinkle in my kid’s eyes.  I love the extra goodwill that seems to flow during the season. I love seeing all the halls decked and the stockings hung, the tinsel, the glitter, and twinkly lights, the familiar carols and the yummy cookies.  When my family moved to Austin in 2010 we thought the decorations on the trees along the 360 corridor were quaint, even festive. “Keep Ausin weird!” we would say as our car whizzed by folks fighting with the tinsel waving in the wind. 

Then In 2012 park use at Bull Creek exploded.  The drought was over and the water came back to the creek and on any given weekend we would have cars lining 360 as folks clambered to enjoy our beautiful little piece of Texas.  I started participating in trash cleanups around Bull Creek. It was summer; there were always diapers, empty beer cans and more diapers but also always tinsel, broken plastic and glass balls, fake snow, still there from the previous Christmas, making its way from the highway into the creek with every gust of wind and every heavy rain.  I started to see the tree decorations as litter. “Once you see it as litter,” one of our volunteers said to me, “you can’t see it any other way.” I stopped thinking it was quaint or festive.  

I imagine that when the tradition started – and the history here is murky, but it likely started with one tree out near Red Bud Trail in the late 90s – there were no big box stores selling single-use plastic ornaments by the bucketful. A few trees were decorated tastefully with reusable decorations.  They were also decorated under the cover of night, as the originators of this tradition rightly assumed it to be illegal. Today, with the availability of cheap ornaments and the ever increasing population, the tradition has exploded and the trash aftermath gets worse every year. It has become unsustainable and at times an eyesore but it is so prevalent that the city’s inability to stop it has been taken as a sanctioning of the activity.   

“I think it’s fine as long as people come clean it up after Christmas.”

When asked how they feel about the 360 trees, many Austinites polled have no problem with this tradition, “as long as people come back and clean it up after Christmas.” The problem here is twofold.  One, many folks do not come back and clean it up, that job falls to Keep Austin Beautiful volunteers, who cart away ever growing loads of Christmas decorations every January that is headed straight for landfills.  Two, think of the weather in November and December; it is windy and rainy. Many decorations blow off the trees and wash into our creeks long before the KAB volunteers come out to pick up what is left.  

A majority of the ornaments purchased from big box stores are made from plastic, specifically Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC).  PVC contains and discharges chemicals that may have adverse health effects, including phtalates, dioxins and BPA. These substances can accumulate in the environment over time, reaching measurable levels in air, water, and sediments in our watershed, which drains to Lake Austin. This is the drinking water for the city of Austin.

The chlorine in PVC is an organochloride and mammals cannot efficiently pass organochlorides through digestion, causing it to concentrate in our bodies.  PVC plastics are resistant to sunlight and weathering so they are not degradable, they granulate, or break into smaller pieces. From Lake Austin, many of these broken ornament fragments begin their journey to the Gulf of Mexico where they pierce the digestive tract and cause sepsis and death in most animals unfortunate enough to mistake them for food.  I wonder what Austinites would say if they were presented with the question, “How do you feel about organochlorides being dumped into your water supply?” or, “Would you want to keep plastic that kills over one million marine animals per year out of the ocean?”

“What if people used biodegradable ornaments? Or hung peanut butter covered pine cones on trees?”

A common solution people suggest is biodegradable ornaments.  The price is prohibitive as they come at a price tag of about $2 per ornament.  Compare that with a Walmart price of $0.31 per ornament. Also who is going to be policing the difference between biodegradable ornaments and the single-use plastic ones?  I love the idea of everyone simply hanging pine cones with peanut butter and bird seed on trees, but in addition to having a large scale unnatural impact on the food chain in the area, it is still sanctioning decorating the trees.  These options are simply not realistic. Perhaps the best solution is that we just let this habitat remain what it is – habitat.

It’s time for a better, more sustainable tradition.

The law defines littering as, “Knowingly depositing in any manner litter on any public or private property or in any public or private waters, without permission to do so. Litter is trash improperly placed so as to be a nuisance or health concern.”  PVC plastic and tinsel are both a nuisance and a health concern and the land bordering 360 is public and private property. If you are planning to decorate a tree this year on 360, I ask that you reconsider. We have lots of volunteer opportunities in our parks and greenbelts if you want to get outside with your family this holiday season, we just ask you to leave the decking to your own halls.