Greening Mardi Gras: Environmentalists push alternatives to plastic Carnival beads in New Orleans

NEW ORLEANS– It’s a beloved age-old Carnival tradition in New Orleans: Masked riders on lavish floats throw strings of colorful beads or other trinkets to parade spectators who shout with outstretched arms.

It’s all well and good, but it’s also a bit of a “plastic disaster,” says Judith Enck, former regional administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and president of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics.

The carnival season is at its peak this weekend. The city’s annual series of parades began more than a week ago and concludes on Tuesday – Mardi Gras – a final holiday before Lent. Thousands of people attend the parades and leave a mess behind.

Despite a massive daily clean-up operation that leaves the post-parade landscape remarkably clean, uncaptured beads dangle like Spanish moss from tree branches and are ground into the mud under the feet of passersby. They also wash over in storms, where they only complicate efforts to keep the city’s flood-prone streets dry. Tons have been removed from the outdated drainage system in recent years.

And those that aren’t removed from storm drains eventually get flushed through the system and end up in Lake Pontchartrain — the large inlet of the Gulf of Mexico north of the city. The non-biodegradable plastics pose a threat to fish and wildlife, Enck said.

“The trash is going to be a defining feature of this event,” said Brett Davis, a New Orleans native who grew up catching beads during Mardi Gras parades. He now heads a nonprofit organization dedicated to reducing waste.

One way to reduce the demand for new plastic beads is to reuse old ones. Paradegoers who take home shopping bags filled with freshly caught beads, foam footballs, rubber balls and a host of other freshly thrown goodies can donate proceeds to the Arc of New Orleans. The organization repackages and resells the products to raise money for the services it provides to adults and children with disabilities.

The City of New Orleans and the New Orleans Tourism Promotion Organization & Co. also has collection points along parade routes for cans, glass and, yes, beads.

In addition to recycling, there is a small but growing movement to find something else for parade riders to lob with.

Grounds Krewe, Davis’ nonprofit organization, now markets more than two dozen types of non-plastic, sustainable items for parade riders to pitch. Among them: headbands made from recycled T-shirts; beads made from paper, acai seed or recycled glass; wooden yo-yos; and packages of locally made coffee, jambalaya mix, or other food items—useful, consumable items that won’t just take up space in someone’s attic or, worse, end up in the lake.

“I just caught 15 foam footballs during a parade,” Davis joked. “What should I do with another one?”

Plastic imports remain ubiquitous, but efforts to limit their harm may be gaining traction.

“These efforts will help make Mardi Gras greener,” Christy Leavitt of the group Oceana said in an email.

Enck, who visited New Orleans last year and attended the Mardi Gras celebrations, hopes parade organizers will embrace biodegradable alternatives.

“There are great ways to have fun around this wonderful festival,” she said. “But you can also have fun without harming the environment.”


Associated Press reporter Jennifer McDermott in Providence, Rhode Island, contributed to this report.