In 2018, New Orleans sanitation workers extracted more than 93,000 pounds of Mardi Gras beads from the clogged storm drains along a five-block stretch of St. Charles. That’s nearly 47 tons of debris. Catch basins—Louisiana’s fancy term for storm grates—are the first line of defense against flooding in a city that exists about one to two feet below sea level. The treasure trove of colorful trash was a shocking wake-up call for New Orleans—the city vowed to make its most popular festival more sustainable.
The tradition of tossing beads from parade floats dates back to 1871, when the Twelfth Night Revelers (the second-oldest Carnival organization, or krewe) began throwing doubloons and customized trinkets to the crowds along the route of their parade. They could never imagine what the tradition would become in the 150 years since.
Mardi Gras produces around 1.2 million pounds of garbage in fewer than 14 days. The majority of the trash is single-use plastic—cups, hats, doubloons, plastic toys, and those colorful beads—all of which can slip into storm drains or end up in Lake Pontchartrain.
“You want to keep up traditions,” says Ann Christian, public relations director for the Arc of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit organization that is trying to provide a solution for the problem. “But these throws [as the trinkets are collectively called] only become garbage if they are not recycled.”
In the ideal world imagined by Arc, the krewe members toss beads off the floats, paradegoers catch them, wear them, and then dispose of them in the nearest Arc recycling receptacle. To achieve this ideal, Arc has placed the purple and green containers around the city in public spaces, hotels, convention centers, and grocery stores. After the goodies are collected in the receptacles, Arc picks up, sorts, repackages, and resells them to the krewes. In 2019, about 170 tons of plastic trinkets were recycled and put back into the parades.
Arc’s primary mission is to support children and adults with Down syndrome, autism, or other intellectual disabilities or delays (IDD). The 67-year-old agency provides employment to those with IDD, largely through the Mardi Gras Recycle Center. This solution is definitely a win/win proposition for New Orleans and Arc.
Another recycling effort comes from a new group, Grounds Krewe. “Mardi Gras is a hugely embarrassing waste problem,” says Brett Davis, who founded Grounds Krewe in 2017. The group sets out custom recycling sacks for beads, cans, and bottles along daytime parade routes in the Uptown neighborhood. The Grounds Krewe volunteers march at the end of each parade, collecting the bags along the way.
The two recycling groups, Arc and Grounds Krewe, partnered this Mardi Gras season to try something different: Together they packaged and sold more than 7,000 sustainable throws—namely, palm-sized jute bags filled with different local foods like coffee beans from New Orleans Roast, Jambalaya Girl rice mix, and Camellia Brand red beans. Reaction from the parade participants was strong. All of the packets made this year were sold to various krewes, each eager to toss something sustainable that represented local businesses and fed the crowds.
The Krewe du Kanaval, which celebrates the city’s historic ties to Haiti, bought 1,500 of the food packets for their parade. They also tossed maracas, necklaces made of glass and nuts, and papier-mâché hearts, all handmade by artisans in the Jacmel region of Haiti. “Krewe du Kanaval is proud to reimagine the giving spirit of Mardi Gras in a more sustainable and conscientious way,” says Kanaval producer Reeves Price. Honoring tradition and feeding the city represents another win/win for New Orleans.
Atlas Beads offers bracelets, necklaces, and purses crafted from recycled magazine paper by artisans in Uganda. The concept has proven popular: Owner Kevin Fitzwilliam saw his sales double this year and last. The company sells the Mardi Gras items at PJ’s Coffee on Magazine, Bywater Bakery, and Happy Raptor Distilling, and this year, the company partnered with Girls Gone Vegan Bakery: Order a king cake, and the bakery will “throw” in a necklace or bracelet as a handmade gift.
Atlas also sold 4,000 necklaces to the krewes of Tucks, Cleopatra, and Nyx to throw during their parades. “When someone catches an Atlas product, a tag on the back tells them how it was made,” Fitzwilliam says. “People instantly know they have something special.”
Many of the other Mardi Gras organizations have jumped on the sustainable parade float, too. The Krewe of Bacchus cut their plastic bead purchases by 50 percent this season, instead distributing aprons, cooking spoons, and silicone wineglasses to their revelers. The Krewe of Rex has replaced their regular plastic cups with 10,000 lightweight stainless steel ones.
A few artists are helping with the Mardi Gras leftovers, too, by collecting those old-school necklaces to use the beads as a medium for their artwork. One of the most prolific in this hyperlocal artwork is Tama Distler, whose work reimagines iconic Louisiana food labels like Tabasco, Café Du Monde, and Zapp’s Potato Chips. (Distler’s Roman Candy Cart piece is on display until early April at the Where Y’Art Gallery on Royal Street.)
“I have the incredible good fortune of living four houses from the Uptown parade route,” Distler says. “This means proximity to 32 bead-and-trinket-throwing, music-filled parades. . . . My materials come to me.”
So if you’re in town for Mardi Gras, and those materials come flying in the air to you, remember to seek out one of the recycling options now available. “One thing we absolutely implore you to remember,” says Christian of the Arc of Greater New Orleans, “is not to throw food or liquid into the recycling bins. One hot dog or Budweiser in the bin means we have to trash the whole thing, even if it’s 200 pounds of beads that would be recycled.”