Massive Waste of Mardi Gras Beads is No Party

© Phelan Riessen via Flickr -- Mardi Gras detritus: plastic beads and trash line the sidewalks, headed to landfill.

Tomorrow, Tuesday, February 21, marks Fat Tuesday, the last night of Mardi Gras. It also marks the beginning of a massive clean-up with tons of plastic beads heading to landfill.

After days of celebrations in New Orleans with dozens of parades, an estimated 25 million pounds of plastic beads, cups and tokens tossed from floats litter the streets throughout the French Quarter. This annual Bacchanal is filled with traditional balls, debauchery and heaps of beads, trinkets and “throws” falling curbside.

"It's about the show not the throw"

But Verdi Gras, an environmental group in the Crescent City, intends to reduce the beads and things headed to landfill and reuse them next year. "It's about the show not the throw" is their motto.

The green group has partnered with Arc Enterprises, an organization that provides jobs for the mentally challenged, to recycle bag-loads of beads. And despite protests from the revelers that Mardi Gras is all about indulgent behavior–not responsible actions—100,000 pounds of beads were recycled last year. So far 2012 looks bigger.

© Stephan Wanger -- ”Walking to New Orleans” by Stephán Wanger repurposed 75,000 beads on a recycled old door.

This year, the two outfits teamed up for a float called “Catch and Release” which followed three parades, collecting 1000 pounds of throws with the Little Rascals float. This clever idea has onlookers “throwing” back the extra baubles that pile up on the sidewalks. Also, bins for plastic beads and other recyclables, line the parade routes, manned by volunteers to ensure proper usage by parade-goers, instead of tossing cookies inside.

Far from the carnival's original use of glass beads, over the last several years, cheap beads from China have been used by float riders to satisfy the more than a million party-goers. Mardi Gras: Made in China, a 2005 documentary by David Redmon, examines the dire working conditions in a Chinese factory that cranks out these beaded necklaces.

After the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and then the Gulf Oil Spill left New Orleans so environmentally vulnerable, reusing leftover plastic beads is welcome. Next year, the plan is to increase the Catch & Release trailers to cover all the parades. And among the green efforts, another group, LifeCity held a "Green the Gras" contest and the winning proposal suggested beads be exchanged Club Med-style at local businesses.

© Stephan Wanger -- Stephán Wanger's “Vision of an Immigrant” mosaic of 72,000 Mardi Gras beads.

An artist in the Garden District, German Stephán Wanger, began recycling beads by decorating planters, according to a LA Times story about New Orleans' bead hangover. He also creates huge mosaics, like the 30-foot-by-8-foot image, “Sanctuary of Alegria" of city's skyline along the Mississippi, reusing more than one million beads. His “Vision of an Immigrant” (above) depicts Oak Alley Plantation's live oaks planted three centuries years ago by a Frenchman. It inspired Wanger to ask: What can we do today that will benefit society 300 years from now?

Mardi Gras' official colors are gold for justice, purple for power and green for faith -- and maybe sustainability sooner than 300 years from now.

Tags: New Orleans | Plastics | Recycling | Waste

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