Rethinking Mardi Gras – It’s Not About Producing Waste

Connector Winter 2019

Mardi Gras is a holiday that marks the eve of the lean season of Lent and the climax of a season of celebration in New Orleans. Each year, between early January and Mardi Gras, about 75 parades loop through the city. The celebrations are economically as well as culturally important; generating over $164 million in direct economic impact for the city – and an indirect impact that’s far greater.

Parade proceedings are famous for shiny beads and other “throws,” the trinkets tossed by the parading “krewes.” What originally started out with small amounts of glass bead strings here and there, in recent years has become a plastic waste problem. These days, hundreds of thousands of bead necklaces collect in the streets each year – and the beads have been found in the muddy sediments of nearby waterways, carried along by wastewater as it flows away from the city.

“The city used to measure the success of Mardi Gras by how much trash it produced,” says Kevin Fitzwilliam, a lifelong New Orleans resident and krewe member. He’s the founder of Atlas Beads, a company that sells biodegradable paper beads.

Last year, the New Orleans sanitation department scooped up over 1,200 tons of waste after all the parades wrapped up. A lot of it was beads. In advance of the parade season, the city department of public works had made a concerted effort to clear clogged storm drains. They removed more than 3,000 tons of debris – including 46 tons of leftover Mardi Gras beads collected on just five blocks of St. Charles Avenue, the main parade route.

Organizations such as Verdi Gras have been formed to green the holiday. They are now part of a growing movement of people and groups from across the city who are trying to make Mardi Gras more sustainable.

The Young Leadership Council (YLC), a community-focused nonprofit, is developing its own Mardi Gras recycling program. With partner groups they have rolled out crews of volunteers who walk alongside some of the parades, passing out bags for trash, recycling, and unwanted beads. At just one parade last year, says Skowyra, they collected 2,000 plastic bottles and 1.25 tons of beads that would have otherwise ended up on the street.

Fitzwilliam, the founder of Atlas Beads, is part of a krewe that’s incorporating trash pickup into the very act of parading. The “Trashformers,” as they call themselves, kitted out bikes with welded-on shopping carts, painted electric green, to collect trash along their route. Parading in costume, they dance and high-five onlookers as they pick up trash.

“We’re flipping the script,” Fitzwilliam says. “Waste reduction may not seem cool, but guess what – if you’re not picking up the trash off the ground, you’re not having as much fun as we are.”

Another solution is actually to reuse the beads that get tossed each year. The nonprofit Arc of Greater New Orleans collects beads after the celebrations die down and employs adults with intellectual disabilities to repair the strands and sell them back to krewes the following year.

Yet another option is to make the beads themselves more sustainable. Naohiro Kato, a plant biologist at Louisiana State University, is developing a new technique to make biodegradable beads from a kind of algae that could be grown and processed locally. Other companies are sourcing paper or glass beads again. Nothing can compete on price with the cheap plastic beads though.

“Now, it’s about volume,” says Gary Zoller, the founder of Throw Me Something Green, a company importing non-plastic Mardi Gras beads. “Krewes want sparkly, crazy stuff in the sky for the whole route. But the goal we have is to change people’s perceptions of what is a successful Mardi Gras: Not just that you end up with the most stuff, but stuff you’d actually want to keep.”

The most important change that’s needed has nothing to do with stuff. It’s refocusing on the performances by the krewes and the personal connections that make the experience meaningful.

Source: National Geographic