Every year in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast, revelers line up to jump up and down, scream, and hold up signs in the hopes of catching that one big symbol of Mardi Gras: beads. Locals and visitors alike love those plastic baubles.
But beads have a usefulness life shorter than a plastic straw. People love them when they’re flying through the air, caught, and briefly won. At the end of the night, they get stored in Krewe-marked bags or backpacks until they’re taken home. Some might dress up a lamp or bookshelf, but the reality is, generic Mardi Gras beads are completely useless—an estimated 25 million pounds of useless tossed out every year.
They’re also horribly unsustainable. The plastic beads are made in China, often under deplorable working conditions, and research has shown the beads contain lead, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals. They aren’t something you want in the waterways or being trampled into the soil.
And for New Orleans, they’re becoming an environmental disaster. During the early days of August 2017, an unusually strong rain storm dropped up to 10 inches of rain in the city. But there was a problem. Water started to overflow from drains and catch basins, eventually flooding city streets, lifting cars, and pushing into doorways in New Orleans’ Mid City and Treme neighborhoods. The resulting damage looked more like a hurricane than a simple thunderstorm.
Months later, the city enacted cleaning efforts to reduce the chance of further flooding. From the catch basins alone, cleanup crews removed 93,000 pounds of Mardi Gras beads from the city’s most popular parade routes (not even the whole city!). But no big Krewes or governments are going to boycott beads—they’re inextricable to carnival season, and it’s a huge economic boon—the month-long celebration earns New Orleans approximately $840 million annually. It’s not just the Crescent City, either: Several other cities from Texas to Florida along the South’s Gulf Coast borders have their own Mardi Gras traditions. That’s a lot of beads going to waste.
But these groups have a solution to put those one-use plastics to good use.
Donating in the Big Easy
Several charity groups working with mentally and intellectually disabled people use old beads for their cause. Arc, a nation-wide nonprofit, is one of them. Its chapters near Mardi Gras-celebrating towns use discarded beads for its members to sort, repackage, and sell back to parade riders. Arc of Greater New Orleans has a Mardi Gras Recycling Center which not only recycles beads, but also recycles throws (which can range from pinwheels to stuffed animals) and turns them into entirely new products.
“Everything in the store has been donated from the community,” says Toni Wright, manager of the center. The center recycles about 300,000 pounds of beads each year.
In 2018, ArcGNO set up a pilot recycling initiative with the Young Leadership Council. The YLC and ArcGNO set up recycling stations and handed out bags to collect beads and recyclable bottles and cans. In one day, the groups recycled 2,500 beads, 3,000 plastic bottles, and 10,000 cans.
In 2019, ArcGNO received approval from Jefferson Parish—the parish adjacent to New Orleans—for a large truck to follow its parades, and carnival-goers can hurl back unwanted beads into it. (Tossing beads back at the floats is a big taboo, but Wright says they received lots of support from local krewes.)
Some parades and krewes may call on members of the armed services to hop aboard their float to have some brews and throw some beads—however, they might not be able to finance the ride. (Beads are expensive—they cost between $25 and $40 per case, and it takes an estimated 10 cases to complete a parade route. Plush throws and toys are even more expensive.) The Beads for Military Members effort in New Orleans collects beads to ease that burden for military members hoping to get in on the fun before they’re relocated.
Recycling beads around the south
But these efforts aren’t just in New Orleans. Mobile, Alabama—where the first Mardi Gras is rumored to have originated—also has its share of initiatives, as do other places along the Gulf Coast. The United Cerebral Palsy of Mobile reuses beads, throws, and costumes for its Camp SMILE summer camp for people with disabilities. Krispy Kreme works with local institutions to entice bead hoarders to trade in their beads for doughnuts. In Mobile, the Beads for Doughnuts program gives its beads to the Augusta Evans School where young people with special needs clean up and resell them.
In Gulfport, Mississippi, Gulf Coast Industries, an adult mental health center, has the long-running Throw-M-Again collection program. The program employs cognitively impaired adults with sorting and sanitizing used beads for resale.
How about a mini parade? The Escambia Westgate School in Pensacola, Florida, has been putting on mini Mardi Gras parades for more than 25 years. The school, which serves K-12 students with disabilities, uses its grounds as the parade route, and student riders are given throws and beads. They also take bead and throw donations.
Sustainability on the parade route
While we really doubt all plastic beads will go to the wayside, some Gulf Coast locals are making an effort to build a more sustainable Mardi Gras.
Formed in 2018, the Krewe De Canailles of Lafayette, Louisiana is a walking krewe requiring all floats to be man-powered that only throws sustainable goods. As bigger parade krewes rely on floats pulled by carbon-blasting tractors, trucks to hold sound and lightening equipment, and a heavy dose of smoke machines, a lowered carbon footprint might also just be a peaceful blessing for party goers on the parade routes.
In New Orleans, some groups and float riders are adding more sustainable alternatives to the cheap plastic beads. In recent years, more riders have returned to the glass beads originally thrown from floats before the plastic fillers came along. While the New Orleans-based business Our Place Promotions, is creating beads out of recycled magazines.
While we might never be able to take the plastic beads out of Mardi Gras, we can at least get them out of the sewers and put to good use.