Mardi Gras Beads Are an Environmental Nightmare — but They Don't Have to Be

Mardi Gras beads are as much a part of the celebration as crazy costumes, strong cocktails and color-color-color. . (Photo: Chuck Wagner/Shutterstock)

If you think Mardi Gras in New Orleans is all about getting super-drunk and women flashing their chests for plastic beaded necklaces, you'd be wrong. While those things do happen in the French Quarter, with its Spring Break atmosphere, other parts of New Orleans have incredible parades with inventive, creative themes and bigger floats (many of the largest and most complex parade floats can't fit through the narrow streets of the French Quarter). In fact, if you look at the official Mardi Gras calendar, you'll see that most of the parades are in other neighborhoods, and while people might be drinking, plenty are just enjoying food, friends and the spectacle.

One thing is true: at Mardi Gras, beads are part of the fun, though nudity is not required to get them — even in the French Quarter. Now that we've cleared that up, there's another issue with the beads: while many of them go home with people as souvenirs of one of the planet's most well-known parties, plenty end up in the trash, as you can see in the video below.

The necklaces make their way into storm drains, blocking them (obviously a huge issue in low-lying New Orleans), and they also end up out in the Gulf of Mexico and the ocean.

As if the oceans weren't already dealing with enough of our plastic waste.

And this isn't just a few errant necklaces, or even a few hundred. During an emergency clean out of the city's storm drains after flooding in August, about 93,000 pounds of plastic beads were pulled from catchment basins — and the cleaning's not even done yet. There's no estimate of how many pounds made their way into local and regional waterways.

So, the city has set up a pilot bead-recycling program, including recycling stations along one of the parade routes, as well as volunteers who will circulate to collect beads. That way, people can keep the beads they want and recycle the rest.

The city has also installed "gutter buddies" to temporarily block larger objects from entering storm drains while still allowing the water to through.

Another creative idea comes from the Krewe des Fleurs, a group that takes part in Mardi Gras each year by dressing up in beautifully home-made flower costumes.

They're handing out beads that aren't made from plastic: "We will be handing out seed beads that you'll find in these necklaces. Inside you'll get one bead and that one can go in the ground and you can start growing your own tiny garden," Krewe Des Fleurs founder Laura Dean-Shapiro told ABC News.

"The seed beads are made from unbleached, unprocessed paper, and natural wildflower seeds. There is nothing dangerous are harmful going in the ground, " she said. The group is calling the initiative #SeedsAsBeads.