The French phrase Mardi Gras means “Fat Tuesday” and refers to the last day but it also refers to the entire season.
Mardi Gras is famous for its large parading groups, called Krewes, that go through the city throwing tons of colorful plastic beads to the crowds.
Some of the larger parading groups can have more than two dozen giant floats and over 1000 riders, all enthusiastically throwing “beads”. The parades begin to ramp up during the two weeks prior to Fat Tuesday.
A brief language lesson: In New Orleans, the words “bead or beads” often refers to the bead necklaces that are thrown from the floats. In this context, it does not refer to a single bead.
It requires a lot of throws when the parade route is five miles long and lined five and six deep with people on both sides.
The tradition of throwing trinkets to the crowds began in the 1870s.
In the early years, throws were few and simple, such as candy or small metal or porcelain trinkets.
After WWII, plastic beads began to appear. In the 1960s, besides the plastic beads, necklaces made of glass beads from Czechoslovakia were thrown in large numbers. These have since become collectors’ items.
They were soon replaced by cheap glass necklaces from Japan as well as more plastic beads.
The necklaces were small, about 19-24 inches. By the 1990s brightly colored metalized plastic beads imported from China had become the throws of choice.
The necklaces grew in size until today it is not uncommon to see necklaces hanging down to a person’s knees made up of tennis ball sized beads.
It also became the custom that if the bauble was not caught in the air and fell to the ground, it was not picked up, and the ground became littered with these items.
Although the beads can be used in crafts and people decorate trees and fences with them, use them in costumes, etc., the vast bulk goes into the streets and much goes into the city’s drainage system.
At one time, New Orleans measured the success of Mardi Gras by the tons of trash collected during the season.
The more the better!
To make matters worse, the boxes and plastic bags that the beads came in were also thrown into the street from the floats.
After all, that contributed to the tonnage of trash that indicated a successful Mardi Gras.
When a parade is over, sanitation trucks and crews come by to sweep up the plastic trash which then goes into the landfill, while much escapes into the drainage system.
Every Mardi Gras, the city collects an average of nearly 1,000 tons of trash.
In 2018, 48 tons were found in the catch basins along just five blocks of the St. Charles Avenue parade route.
A total of 1,200 tons was collected in 2018 and 1,300 in 2017. This has come to be known as the “throw-to-trash pipeline”. Link
However, after Hurricane Katrina almost destroyed the city in 2005, the demographics changed a lot, and many young people moved into the city, with all their new ideas and creativity.
They took to Mardi Gras with gusto, but they didn’t have the wealth to join the old line parade krewes, so they created their own small, quixotic marching groups.
They were bothered by the waste they saw with the plastic beads and plastic bags thrown on the streets and have set out to try to remedy that. As a result, a number of solutions are being worked on.
There is a cottage industry producing hand-made necklaces from glass and paper beads and other attractive handmade throws.
Recycling of the plastic beads has also expanded with groups collecting them for an organization (ARC of New Orleans) that provides employment to people with mental disabilities, who sort and sell the beads to the smaller parading groups.
One start-up manufactures tiny burlap bags filled with New Orleans foods, such as red beans, coffee and jambalaya mix. Link
In January 2020, the New Orleans City Council adopted rules that barred the Krewes from throwing the plastic bags and cardboard boxes in which the beads come.
Likewise, the city is encouraging parade goers to bag their trash and recycle their beads. Link
Even more encouraging is that the mainline parades are taking notice and beginning to cut down on the use of the metalized plastic beads.
Bacchus, one of the largest parades, is in the forefront of reducing waste.
They have halved the number of beads they throw and have five floats this year that will throw no beads at all.
Instead, Bacchus will throw reusable items that people will wish to keep. Bacchus is not unique – most of the big parade groups are looking to throw usable items, which include such diverse things as steel cups, flip flops, purses, tee shirts, kitchen utensils, scarves, toys, etc. Link
In another approach, Naohiro Kato, an associate professor of biological sciences at Louisiana State University (LSU), has developed a biodegradable bead from microalgae.
They are said to degrade in two years in soil. Kato hopes to offset the cost of the beads by selling valuable extracts from the algae to biopharmaceutical companies.
A few thousand beads were manufactured for the 2020 season as prototypes and will be thrown by the Krewe of Freret. Link
In summary, several alternatives are in the works for reducing the amount of plastic waste generated during New Orleans Mardi Gras.
Many of the changes that are happening now are in the DIY category, small and not making a significant dent in the waste stream, but they represent a shift in the mindset, and the larger population is taking notice.
The beautiful metalized plastic beads will probably never disappear entirely, but emphasis on their recycling can make a difference.
It is a small start, but it is a start that should lead to a greener, more environmentally friendly Mardi Gras in New Orleans, and its famously interactive parades.
Written by Mary An Godshall
Mary An Godshall is an almost-lifelong resident of New Orleans and has experienced firsthand many Mardi Gras seasons and parades. She is the former managing director of Sugar Processing Research Institute, Inc. During her career she worked with the worldwide sugar industry helping to develop and test analytical methods for trade and commerce and to identify quality issues in sugar processing. She is currently retired.