The Capitol’s Christmas Tree Is (Partially) Made of Trash

Marine debris bedecks a 74-foot tree from Alaska

Capitol Christmas Tree
Part of the Capitol Christmas Tree's splendor comes from marine debris collected along the Alaska coast. JOSHUA ROBERTS/Reuters/Corbis

Christmas is prime time for trash: The EPA estimates that the volume of household waste jumps 25 percent between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. But this year in Washington, D.C., trash is not a byproduct of the festivities but an integral feature. As Kat Long reports for Hakai Magazine, this year’s Capitol Christmas Tree features ornaments made with marine debris.

Bonnie Dillard is an Alaska artist who was selected to provide ornaments for this year’s tree, which was felled in Alaska’s Chugach National Forest. Long reports that Dillard was selected to decorate the tree by the Forest Service after she submitted a prototype of a fish made of shampoo bottles.

Her trashy tree ornaments were constructed by Alaskan schoolchildren this summer from ocean refuse picked up along the Alaska coast by members of a preservation organization. This August, the Associated Press reported that Dillard, a retired art teacher, hoped to use the ornaments as a way to educate Alaska children about society’s wastefulness and the state’s serious marine debris problem, which is exacerbated by its rugged coastline.

Each year, a different state is chosen to provide and decorate the Christmas tree that stands on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol. The Capitol’s grounds superintendent, Ted Bechtol, selects a tree from the chosen state and this year, Bechtol judged what he calls a “beauty contest” between six trees, finally selecting a 74-foot spruce tree that made a two-week, 4,400-mile trip to the Capitol. Dillard was one of multiple individuals chosen to spearhead ornament-making programs throughout Alaska.

You might think that a Christmas tree made of marine waste is unique, but you’d be wrong. Last year, marine debris artist used four tons of beach trash to build a Christmas tree for the Vancouver Museum of Art—and now the tree is part of the museum’s annual display.

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