City crews in Alamo Plaza clean up litter following the Fiesta Flambeau Parade 2016. Photo by Robert Rivard

I have a modest proposal for Fiesta 2017: The Rivard Report would like local artists to contribute to an exhibition of Fiesta litter. My theory: Allowing people to experience litter in an unconventional way might change a city’s bad habit.

Sociologists say there is a direct link between education and raising people’s consciousness about litter, so I have concluded after many years of expressing my distress over Fiesta litter that the answer might lie in art. It certainly does not lie in handing out free garbage and recycling bags.

Anyone out there interested in curating an interactive exhibition of litter? If so, the Rivard Report will help plan and raise money to fund the artists and the project. We have one year to prepare; ‘The Fiesta Litter of San Antonio’ could bring new visitors to local museums and public exhibition spaces. It would make a great traveling exhibition for area schools.

We could take it to SXSW next year.

A chair lays on the street surrounded by cups and litter. Photo by Scott Ball.
Earth Day: After the Battle of Flowers 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.

Seriously, imagine walking into the Witte or the DoSeum and seeing an educational presentation on the history of human waste and litter, from prehistoric times to Fiesta. Tens of thousands of years ago, hunter-gatherers were nomadic and few in number relative to the vast land expanses they traveled, hunted and occupied. Everything they left behind on the trail was biodegradable and easily absorbed by the earth.

Not so anymore. Storms wash San Antonio’s manufactured litter – beer cans, plastic bottles and bags, styrofoam cups, and fast food wrappings are the most commonly found items  – into the sewers and down the entire length of the San Antonio River, one of America’s finest urban linear parks.

Refuse becomes entangled in the wildscape and enters the food chain. I’ve wrestled plastic six-pack packaging off a shore bird, and I’ve seen an egret with styrofoam in its beak. Nesting material, I could only hope.

Children learn from what they see the adults do, more than what they hear the adults say. When adults litter, it sends a signal to the children: It’s okay, don’t get up, just enjoy the parade. They have people who get paid to clean it up, don’t they?

A family attempts to cross Commerce Street as bags of trash and work vehicles surround them. Photo by Scott Ball.
A family attempts to cross Commerce Street as bags of trash and work vehicles surround them. Photo by Scott Ball.

Littering is cultural, and by that, I’m not speaking in code about race or ethnicity. I see as much garbage under the bleachers where the privileged sit in Alamo Plaza as I do along Broadway and Commerce streets.

San Antonio, sad to say, is a littering city. It’s part of who we are. Not all us, of course, but enough to help fix the city’s identity. The Battle of Flowers took place on Earth Day this year. City officials published an op-ed on the Rivard Report last week promoting a “Green, Fit and Friendly Fiesta.” I give local officials a lot of credit for a proactive campaign to make it easy for parade and festival-goers to dispose of garbage and recyclable materials. It’s made a difference, but we are not on our way to becoming a green city.

Why aren’t our efforts working better?

I recently spent several days in Denver, and happened to be downtown for the annual St. Patrick’s Day Parade. Local media reports said as many as 400,000 people were expected along the parade route. The reporter in me doubted that crowd estimate, but I can report that the good people of Denver were out in force to eat, drink and party.

As I walked the parade route later that evening, I was struck by the general absence of litter. There was some litter, certainly, but the streets and sidewalks were not carpeted with trash like San Antonio after a parade, or Brackenridge Park after an Easter holiday.

Standing along downtown Denver’s 16th Street Mall, a pedestrian byway closed to general vehicle traffic, I watched a young man walk toward me where I stood adjacent to a multi-purpose waste and recycling receptacle that are found throughout the center city. He stopped to dispose of a paper bag.

I introduced myself as a visiting journalist from San Antonio and remarked on how litter-free the streets appeared after the parade.

“Littering’s not cool, man,” he said, walking away.

There is a story that made French newspapers about Japanese fans at the 1998 World Cup in Paris, which my family was fortunate enough to attend. I later found an account of the same story online, recounting how Japanese fans cleaned up the stadium before they left, even gathering litter left behind by French fans. You can read it here.

What lessons can we take from people in two different cities in two different parts of the world? In both instances, the people believe in treating the environment with respect, and showing common courtesy in leaving a place like they found it. It’s important to their self-identity.

San Antonio can break its bad habit and transform itself into a litter-free city in time to celebrate its 300th birthday in 2018. The official dates are in May of that year, but we all know the party will get started when Fiesta rolls around that April.

The City of San Antonio can help lead us there, but elected leaders who have nothing to say right now about our litter problem will have to start talking about it. City Council will have to push the nonprofit Fiesta San Antonio Commission into a more ambitious anti-litter campaign. The money the City now spends throwing every available body and vehicle into the frenzied post-parade cleanup henceforth should be billed as an expense to event organizers. The Fiesta Commission generates significant revenues, even after some very extravagant partying is expensed. Most of its signature events take place on City-owned property and streets.

The City’s Downtown Operations Department, Parks and Recreation Department,  Solid Waste Management Department, and the San Antonio Police Department all play major roles in making Fiesta clean, safe and secure for the hundreds of thousands who participate from near and far. The cost to taxpayers is substantial. How much? I don’t know, but the Rivard Report will ask the City for a formal accounting of the 2016 costs and publish those numbers when we receive them. We should not have to pay to clean up the mess.

Nine years ago an economic impact study estimated Fiesta spending in 2007 at $284 million, meaning it is now $325 million or more. The City of San Antonio reported at the time that it received $4 million in additional sales tax revenue from Fiesta. As far as I know, the Fiesta Commission never released the actual report, but it is oft-cited as fact. Fiesta Commission executives wrote in a 2013 Express-News op-ed that the study was being updated along with Fiesta’s impact on its recipient charities.

The Fiesta Commission’s web page on the 10-day event’s charitable impact is also light on actual numbers, although it reports its 100-member organizations award $600,000 in scholarships and donations. That seems like a small number in the scheme of things, given the event’s size.

Workers pick up cans along Broadway the morning after the Fiesta Flambeau. Photo by Robert Rivard
Workers pick up cans along Broadway the morning after the Fiesta Flambeau Parade 2014. Photo by Robert Rivard

Fiesta’s 125th anniversary celebration closes in the coming days, too late to do anything truly transformative about the event’s massive littering problem. Incremental improvements have been made, but nothing to even remotely change our image as a city whose people openly litter en masse.

I am serious about our offer to work with artists to take some of our Fiesta litter and present it in ways that enlighten people. Finding a museum willing to give us space at the risk of offending some of its benefactors might be an issue. If so, we can design our own pop-up museum.

There is a moral obligation to educate our children in the broadest sense, and to lead by example. A provocative, interactive exhibition could counter what our city’s children are not learning from adults about the impact of trash on the environment. It could turn many of them into environmental ambassadors who might then influence the very adults in their lives whose values are lacking.

Viva Fiesta, yes. But, viva the environment, our streets, parks, and the San Antonio River, too.

A river runs through it: Fiesta garbage litters the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River in 2013. Photo by Robert Rivard
A river runs through it: Fiesta garbage litters the Mission Reach of the San Antonio River in 2013. Photo by Robert Rivard

Top image: City crews in Alamo Plaza clean up Fiesta litter following the First Flambeau Parade 2016. Photo by Robert Rivard

Related Stories:

Easter Campers Leave Piles of Trash in Brackenridge Park — Again

Post-Easter Trash: Cleanup at Brackenridge Park

Littertown: Broadway’s Fiesta Hangover

The Fiesta Commission Responds to ‘Littertown’

Leave It Like They Found It

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.