A trashy Christmas tree story that hurts Earth

A trashy Christmas tree story

All over Earth, I have watched my husband make special Christmas tree displays on beaches form something like 13 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.

This year, the choice spot to put up our tree was a stretch of sand between Liloan and Danao, on Cebu Island in the Philippines. It’s where we happen to be on the planet this year.

Beer in hand, shirt opened, hat and sunglasses on his head, Tedly set 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 surveyed location options, I noted the irony of what I carried: 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 in a thin plastic bag for two cents.

a plastic bag filled with water held up to the sun

The bag will make plastic trash, no better than a bottle. And that’s ironic because our Christmas tree ornaments will be plastic trash bits we find on the beach. 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 myself, 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 was sucking a lollipop on a plastic stick. That stick will be on Earth way longer than me.

I carried cool water in a plastic bag as I sucked on a sugar stick (that had come in double plastic wrapping, by the way – on the pop, and more pops like it in a plastic bag). I was a consumer of plastic that would end up as trash somewhere on Earth — like all the bits of plastic I saw under my feet as I followed my husband so he could build a trash tree.

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

And in my next string of thoughts, I wondered: 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.

Inwardly, 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 about since we started this trashy Christmas tree tradition: my consumption matters; it doesn’t matter; it does matter; what’s the point?

At least now, finally, at the dawn of a new decade, mainstream media have covered the plastic trash story enough so people at least know about it. We’ve been watching it pile up around Earth for years.

Trashy Christmas tree traditions are born

It started, we think, in 2006 or 2007. We can’t really remember our first trashy Christmas tree. We have photos from every year, but those early years are stored in a box as old-fashioned hard copy photographs, either at my sister’s home or Tedly’s uncle’s home.

Since I can’t get to the box, Tedly and I recalled photos of past trees on Flickr. We remembered something special about most years.

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, 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 a Christmas scene: tree, ornaments, gifts, seating.

I took a picture of a boy and a man. Spectators. 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

Aside from that year in Tulum, 2015, my husband usually 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 in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, near the holidays that year. 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.

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

Also, there probably was less trash in the ocean and on Earth a decade ago.

Another unusually bare trashy Christmas tree was from 2013, when we went to Nicaragua on a work vacation in early December. That year’s picture came from Ometepe Island. It’s on a giant lake – not the ocean. There was less trash, but still enough for a tree.

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


It’s not just Cebu or the Philippines. The 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. This year, for the first time, someone joined us — Tedly’s mom.

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

Great lookin’ picture with our trashy Christmas tree, no? This year’s tree was done in record time — because there was trash everywhere.

While Tedly decorated his masterpiece, Mom Diane and I chatted under the shade of the trees. She told me when she was a child, goods were not packaged like they are today – everything was loose.

The three of us recently reminisced about how lollipops used to come on thick cardboard sticks. What was wrong with those, we wondered?

For all packaging, my guess is business costs and profits. It probably cost less to mass produce suckers with plastic sticks and plastic wrapping and packaging. We’re probably the suckers for buying this junk.

Companies are not going to sprout angel wings and do something for the good of the world. It has to change at the consumer purchasing level.

Every now and then, I read about a new type of grocery store that packs items for consumers using all 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. I’ve belonged to it since it started. I often see hopeful news in the plastic trash war posted on this page or in its group by the same name before I see it anywhere else.

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. I can resolve to skip water bags and lollipops forever, instead of flip flopping.

So, that’s the Earth Vagabonds trashy Christmas tree tradition story. Somehow I don’t think we’ll have many bare trees in the years ahead.

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

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

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