A trashy Christmas tree story

A trashy Christmas tree story

Last Updated on December 22, 2023 by Ellen

All over Earth, I have watched my husband make special Christmas tree displays on beaches for years. We use the creation in a picture that serves as our Christmas card. It’s not your typical holiday card, because my husband isn’t a typical guy.

Now the choice spot for our trashy tree is a stretch of sand between Liloan and Danao, on Cebu Island in the Philippines. It’s where we happen to be on the planet.

Beer in hand, shirt opened, hat and sunglasses on his head, Tedly sets out to pick the perfect spot for holiday decorating — his way.

tedly looks around the beach for a spot to put his annual holiday decoration

As we survey location options, I carry a plastic bag filled with water. It’s how the locals buy water. Instead of a single-serve thick plastic bottle, it’s served from a large chilled jug and sold in a thin plastic bag for the equivalent of two cents.

The bag will make plastic trash, no better than a bottle.

a plastic bag filled with water held up to the sun

Next year, something like it might be our Christmas tree decoration. Yep – we decorate with whatever plastic trash we find in the vicinity. We do this every year, different beach, different country, different ocean or lake or village.

I rationalize this small bag of water isn’t as bad as a bottle. The bag plastic is thinner; therefore, I justify my use — the plastic might breakdown sooner than a bottle. But deep down I know the truth: both water containers suck for Earth.

As I try to rationalize the bag, I’m struck by more irony: I’m sucking a lollipop on a plastic stick. That stick will be on Earth way longer than me.

I carry cool water in a plastic bag as I suck on a sugar stick (that had come in double plastic wrapping, by the way). I am a consumer of plastic that will end up as trash somewhere on Earth — like all the bits of plastic I see under my feet as I follow my husband so he can build this year’s Christmas Trash Tree.

trashy christmas tree decorations come from plastic trash in the sand - like these bits on the shore

I wonder: what’s the use? So what if I have a bag – or bottle – of water? A lollipop on a plastic stick? My inconsequential consumption isn’t going to break the ocean or Earth. I look around and see plastic trash everywhere.

I resolve to stop all plastic trash use. Again. Until I see how overwhelming the problem is, and get discouraged. Again.

I’ve gone back and forth on the plastic trash issue ever since we started this trashy tradition. My consumption matters, it doesn’t matter, it does matter — what’s the point?

At least now, finally, Americans far from dump sites know it’s a global problem. We’ve long known about this issue, because we travel to developing countries far from America.

Trashy Christmas tree traditions are born

Our tradition started, we think, in 2006 or 2007. We can’t really remember our first Christmas Trash Tree. We have photos from every year, but those early photos are hard copy photographs, stored either in a box at my sister’s home or Tedly’s uncle’s home.

We make the tree and then we usually sit around the beach somewhere nearby so we can watch people’s reactions. Sometimes people think it’s funny. They take selfies.

One year in Tulum, Mexico, we made a giant art installation around our trashy Christmas tree because there was so much garbage stuck in the sargassum. No passersby laughed that year. Our plastic trash was arranged into an entire Christmas scene with the junky ornamental tree as the focal point. There were gifts, and seating — all from plastic trash.

I took a picture of a boy and a man. Spectators of our handiwork. Hands in their pockets, bare feet on sand and seaweed, probably wondering what the hell they were looking at.

man and boy stand on the beach near the water and look at an art installation made of plastic trash from the beach

We both decorated that scene in Tulum back in 2015. But many years, he does the dirty work and decorates the trashy Christmas tree by himself, while I read or nap or watch him.

The first digital picture of our trees that I see on our cloud account is from 2009. We were on a work vacation in Playa del Carmen, Mexico. It’s a place where the beach is cleaned every day for tourists.

Maybe that’s why it looks like a Charlie Brown Christmas tree — bare.

Also, there probably was less trash in the ocean and on Earth so many years ago.

tedly stands by his trashy christmas tree on the beach in mexico

Another unusually bare Christmas Trash Tree was from early December 2013, while in Nicaragua on a work vacation. That year’s picture came from Ometepe Island on a giant lake. There was less trash, but still enough for a tree.

tedly kneels on the beach by his trashy christmas tree in nicaragua


The plastic trash trend is global, and not limited to oceans.

From Mexico to Nicaragua, Malaysia to the Philippines, we make Christmas cards from trash trees. It’s our tradition. It’s Tedly’s tradition. In 2020, for the first time, someone else joins us — Tedly’s mom, Diane.

This tree is done in record time — because there is trash everywhere.

me, tedly, mom diane stand around the trashy christmas tree on the beach with the words "merry christmas, liloan, cebu, 2019"

While Tedly decorates his masterpiece, Mom Diane and I chat under in the tree shade. She recounts her childhood experience with consumer goods. She says they were not packaged like they are today – everything was loose back then.

We both remember when lollipops came on thick cardboard sticks. What was wrong with those, we wonder?

My guess is plastic is cheaper and means more profit. But I feel like a sucker for buying this junk pop and enabling our troubling Christmas Trash Tree tradition.

Every now and then I read about a new type of grocery store that packs items for consumers with recyclable wrapping. Orders are filled from bulk bins. So, everything is loose, like in Mom Diane’s youth, and then the grocery orders are sustainably packed. These types of entrepreneurs and consumers give me hope.

If you’re looking for a group to share ideas, Environmentally Conscious Consumers is a good one. It showcases hopeful news in the plastic trash war.

As nonstop travelers, it’s difficult for us to live plastic-free. We don’t have a home base to store jars and place orders in bulk. But, I can keep doing what I’m doing – like bringing my day bag or backpack to the market. and I can resolve to skip water bags, bottles and lollipops. I can resolve to stop flip flopping. Because it really does matter.

So. That’s the Earth Vagabonds trashy Christmas tree tradition story. Somehow I don’t think we’ll have any more bare trees in the years ahead. At least – not until we all make the same resolutions.

From my family to yours, Merry Christmas and peace on Earth. And may we all use less singe-use plastic in the coming year.

trashy christmas tree on a beach with lots of plastic bits stuck to branches tied together with plastic cords

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