New Orleans Gets a Bead on the Mardi Gras Bead Problem

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Mardi Gras marks the last day before the fasts of Lent, a traditional period of reflection in Christianity before the Easter holiday. The glorious day, also known as Carnival and Fat Tuesday, is celebrated worldwide with lively music and exquisite feasts. Perhaps the most famous bash is held in downtown New Orleans and boasts more than 50 parades.

You can spot crowds dressed in the traditional Mardi Gras colors of purple, green and gold along the parade routes. Candy, trinkets and lots of plastic bead necklaces, the unofficial icon of Mardi Gras, are generously tossed from floats.

Bead Block

Unfortunately, those eye-catching beads can become a menace. Plastic ends up everywhere — strung on power lines, littering the sidewalk, floating in local waterways and stuck in storm drains.

Contract crews recently sucked out a whopping 46 tons of plastic beads clogging catch basins along a five-block stretch in downtown New Orleans. There’s no doubt that the majority of this pesky debris came from the parades of Mardi Gras.

Clogged storm drains cause flooding when it downpours, and the Big Easy is no stranger to stormy weather.

The city, noting the need for clean catch basins, has purchased more than 200 “gutter buddies,” contraptions used to cover catch basins and block foreign debris. Crews have placed a majority of these orange attachments along popular parade routes in hopes of maximizing their bead-blocking capability.

A news release from the city of New Orleans announced that as many as 600 employees and 90 pieces of equipment will be on hand to sweep streets at the end of each Mardi Gras parade day.

A New Recycling Program

New Orleans is preparing to reduce litter this year, but what about the beads that partygoers collect, bring home and toss later? These plastic beads will inevitably end up in landfills or polluting the environment — they don’t biodegrade and often contain toxic chemicals and heavy metals.

A Mardi Gras bead recycling program is desperately needed.

It’s all fun and games until the beads become plastic pollution. Photo: Adobe Stock

This year, a system is finally being put into place. The Young Leadership Council (YLC) and the Arc of Greater New Orleans are joining forces to make Mardi Gras a greener event.

Volunteers from the organizations will be handing out bead bags along the parade routes. People can have all the fun that comes with catching beads and trinkets from passing parade floats and, when they’re finished with them, collect them in their bead bags and bring them to one of the many YLC recycling stations at the event. These stations will also be accepting recyclable waste, like plastic and aluminum, to later be collected by the local sanitation service.

Thanks to this program, you can expect a lot less litter at Mardi Gras.

Plotting the Program

Collected bead bags will go to the Arc to be recycled. The Arc of Greater New Orleans gives opportunities to adults with developmental disabilities to join the work force. Along with local volunteers, participants in this program will work to recycle the Arc’s collected Mardi Gras beads. The beads and other trinkets, known as throws, are sorted and recycled or reused. Organizations can buy throws from the Arc to support this meaningful program.

The Arc has been recycling and reusing Mardi Gras beads for more than 30 years, but they have always relied on donations to drive the project. This will be the first year their volunteers — alongside those from the YLC — will be collecting recyclables in the thick of Mardi Gras.

The pilot recycling program taking place this year will be documented, measured and improved upon in an effort to prove its significance in reducing waste and saving on clean-up costs. If successful, this green initiative could be adopted by the government to improve sustainability at all future Mardi Gras events.

Are you headed to Mardi Gras this year? Look out for recycling stations and dispose of your throws responsibly!

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Lauren Murphy

Lauren Murphy

Lauren has a B.S. in environmental science, a crafting addiction, and a love for all things Pacific Northwest. She writes from her cozy downtown apartment tucked in the very northwestern corner of the continental U.S. Lauren spends her time writing and focusing on a healthy, simple and sustainable lifestyle.
Lauren Murphy

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