Time to ditch the beads? On Mardi Gras (Part 1)

In the quest to live plastic-free, it’s easy sometimes to ‘throw out the baby with the bath water,’ so to speak. Sometimes it seems more efficient to encourage people to disassociate with any plastic-using/ trash-causing event, which for us here in South Louisiana would include the celebration of Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is the specific day dedicated to the celebration of Carnival. This takes place the day before Ash Wednesday and marks the eve of the 40 days of lent, honored most often by the Catholic church and its members. Colloquially, we know Mardi Gras to be celebrated in Louisiana (New Orleans) and Carnival to be celebrated in Brazil (Rio de Janeiro).  

Mardi Gras is hardly a religious holiday, and celebrated by a wide variety of peoples. Often a celebration of excess: it often includes feasts, parties, drinking, and parades. In New Orleans, Mardi Gras is also celebrated as it originally was: with elegant society balls.

The wild and festive parades we now see in New Orleans at Mardi Gras time have been celebrated in the city since the mid-to-late 1800’s. The first krewe was formed in 1830 and the idea of throwing objects out to the parade attendees was first recorded in 1870 and attributed to the second Krewe.

Today, there are many parades full of different Krewe’s and everyone throws something. Between the multiple parades in multiple cities across South Louisiana, that adds up to a lot of trash. Trash is commonly created in costumes, parade decorations, plastic cups for alcohol, and throws or beads.

Every year during Mardi Gras, 25 million pounds of beads are tossed from floats and balconies. David Redmon writes in Smithsonian Mag, “The Mardi Gras bead originates in Middle Eastern oil fields. There, under the protection of military forces, companies mine the oil and petroleum, before transforming them into polystyrene and polyethelene – the main ingredients in all plastics. The plastic is then shipped to China to be fashioned into necklaces – to factories where American companies are able to take advantage of inexpensive labor, lax workplace regulations and a lack of environmental oversight.”

When I was a freshman in college, I attended an art school in Chicago where I took my first cultural studies class. We watched a documentary called, “Mardi Gras: Made in China.” I was the only person who knew what Mardi Gras was beyond just a name, and the only person from Louisiana in my class.

I was disheartened when I looked at this treasured portion of my Louisianian upbringing through a critical lens. Young Chinese women work long hours in factories where they are separated from their families and forced to meet a quota of approximately 100-200 necklaces a day. They face severe consequences if they mess up, or fail to meet their quota.

Not only that, Mardi Gras beads pose both an environmental risk, and a threat to our health. Redmon adds, “Independent research on beads collected from New Orleans parades has found toxic levels of lead, bromine, arsenic, phthalate plasticizers, halogens, cadmium, chromium, mercury and chlorine on and inside the beads. It’s estimated that up to 920,000 pounds of mixed chlorinated and brominated flame retardants were in the beads.”

We are beginning to realize the negative impact of this waste produced by a beloved holiday. I firmly believe in humanity’s ability to adapt. We don’t have to toss away the holiday, we can simply adapt how we celebrate it! That includes companies like Atlas Beads, making biodegradable paper beads.

National Geographic published an article on Feb. 22, 2019 about rethinking Mardi Gras:“The city used to measure the success of Mardi Gras by how much trash it produced,” says Kevin Fitzwilliam, a lifelong New Orleans resident and krewe member. He’s the founder of Atlas Beads, a company that sells biodegradable paper beads. “It's so insane that we have to keep turning a blind eye to this trash—why can't we keep the things that are incredibly beautiful about this tradition, but do them in a better way?”

Last year the New Orleans sanitation department retrieved “over 1,200 tons of waste after all the parades wrapped up. A lot of it was beads. In advance of the parade season, the city department of public works had made a concerted effort to clear clogged storm drains. They removed more than 3,000 tons of debris—including 46 tons of leftover Mardi Gras beads collected on just five blocks of St. Charles Avenue, the main parade route.”

The festivities surrounding Mardi Gras shouldn’t cease. There’s no need for us to stop having fun, or celebrating! But, as we continue to move forward and acknowledge the mistakes and injustices in our history, and the inefficiencies in our systems, we should strive to change our methods moving forward. This includes promoting inclusivity and demanding that the parades and Krewe’s marked by racial insensitivity or just obvious racism be held accountable and not allowed to continue. This also means that it’s time to find alternatives to plastic beads! Whether that’s just biodegradable beads, other kinds of throws, or no throws at all with an emphasis on the theatrics of the event, we can do better!

In zero-waste, we often find ourselves pushing away from excess and towards minamilism. Mardi Gras seems to celebrate excess, but it doesn’t have to. There is a way to maintain the history, culture, show and theatrics without the waste and trash it creates. Where there is a will, there is always a way.

Emily McCollister