When bits of confetti and glitter pile up on the sidewalks of campus, students know graduation season is approaching. However, some may not be aware of the negative impact those plastic pieces can have on aquatic life in the river.
Many seniors take graduation photos around campus, and one popular trend is tossing confetti.
When students fail to clean up, the confetti or glitter can wash into nearby storm drains that lead directly to the San Marcos River. Most confetti pieces are made of plastic or metallic material, which can be harmful to aquatic life.
Dianne Wassenich, program manager for the San Marcos River Foundation, said more than 12 endangered species reside in the river. Aquatic animals like salamanders, fish and turtles can mistake confetti or glitter for food.
“It’s a food chain issue,” Wassenich said. “When animals eat confetti, it can frequently clog their gut. They cannot digest food if they swallow enough of it. It builds up in their system, and a lot of times, it kills them.”
Jenna Walker, Texas Stream Team program coordinator, said confetti is a form of micro plastic that doesn’t break down in the environment.
“Everything you drop on the sidewalk is all going into the river every time it rains,” Wassenich said. “If you want to throw something in the air for a photo, use biodegradable materials.”
Flower petals, birdseed and rice are eco-friendly materials students can use as alternatives to confetti or glitter. Walker said there are biodegradable forms of confetti that can be purchased as well.
Confetti or glitter bits on the ground aren’t the only materials people should be worried about, Wassenich said. Cigarette butts, plastic wrappers, cans and bottles can do just as much damage to aquatic life.
Students should always dispose of balloons, which are frequently used for graduation photos and ceremonies, Wassenich said.
“If you let a balloon go in the sky, it will pop and that rubber will fall into a river or on land,” Wassenich said. “That bit of rubber looks like food to fish, turtles and birds. They can get caught in the strings or they can choke on the rubber.”
Amy Kirwin, Keep San Marcos Beautiful coordinator, said birds can also be negatively affected by undisposed confetti or glitter.
“The confetti is shiny and pretty, and birds can mistake that as food,” Kirwin said. “When they ingest it, it doesn’t leave their body. It stays in there forever and slowly kills the animal.”
Kirwin said Keep San Marcos Beautiful brings people together to dispose of the glitter and confetti around campus before it reaches the river. During the first Saturday of every month, the organization does hot spot cleanups with a focus on micro-litter.
However, Kirwin’s cleanup teams aren’t always able to dispose of each piece of litter.
The San Marcos River Foundation is one of many organizations to host cleanups to get rid of trash circulating in the river.
“Litter builds up in the bottom of the river, and when it’s really tiny like confetti, it never really gets picked up in a cleanup,” Wassenich said. “We can’t vacuum the bottom of the river.”
Texas State has sent out emails regarding confetti concerns, and Wassenich said the university should continue to do so.
“A new crop of people move to San Marcos to be at the university every semester,” Wassenich said. “It is effective for these email reminders to happen.”
Walker said the river can be a sacred place for students, whether they tube, swim or study at Sewell.
“If students are wanting to protect the places they love, they need to find alternatives to glitter,” Walker said.
The issue spurs from the fact that local retailers sell the micro-plastic versions of confetti, Kirwin said. City and university staff plans to partner with businesses in the area for the next tubing season.
“We need to work proactively with local retailers to educate them on making other alternative forms that are more environmentally friendly,” Kirwin said. “It needs to be more prominent with science explaining why, so students and residents are not tempted to buy the regular confetti.”
All three organizations offer educational opportunities for students and citizens to get on board with keeping the San Marcos River litter-free.
Keep San Marcos Beautiful offers educational programs such as Environmental Education and Litter Prevention. For more information, contact Kirwin by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 512-393-8407.
The San Marcos River Foundation is hosting a cleanup from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 12 at the San Marcos River Retreat. To volunteer or become a member, visit the organization’s website or call 512-353-4628.
The Texas Stream Team at the Meadows Center for Water and the Environment trains stewards for the river. For more information on volunteering, email email@example.com or call 512-245-9200.