The Environmental Impact of Plastic Mardi Gras Beads

8 Feb

It’s 2013 and the rich tradition of Mardi Gras lives on in New Orleans. If you want proof look no further than the nearby landfills where decades-old Mardi Gras beads lay perfectly intact.

This harrowing fact has been the motivation for several interest groups, such as Verdi Gras, looking to keep Mardi Gras purple, yellow, and especially green.

Holly Groh and her husband Kirk were devastated when they lost their home to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. They thought they had lived through the worst damage done to Louisiana’s fragile ecosystem, but they were wrong. In 2010 a BP oil rig malfunctioned in the Gulf of Mexico, sending millions of gallons of toxic chemicals into the Gulf’s waters, delivering a catastrophic blow to the state’s prosperous seafood industry. Then came the proverbial plastic straw that broke the Groh’s back: the piles and piles of petroleum-based plastic beads left behind post Mardi Gras.

“It seemed like such a waste given what we had one through,” Groh said.

From the seeds of their frustration, Verdi Gras was born. Under the iconic Tree of Life in Audubon Park, the Groh’s and a group of dedicated New Orleanians decided to start a dialogue in the city, one that would foster creative ideas about how to curb the environmental impact the beads inflicted. They did not have the answers, but they wanted to get people talking.

Their mission, Groh explained, was “to preserve our wonderful, unique, cultural history and at the same time preserve our recourses. Not only the recourses of New Orleans, but the world’s recourses.”

They knew they had to start somewhere, so why not with the life cycle of the bead itself? Through their research the Groh’s found that the path of the bead starts with petroleum from the Gulf of Mexico or the Middle East. Then it travels to China, where chemical compounds such as polyethylene and polystyrene are used to form the bead. The beads are then shipped to the United States and sold to distributors such as Beads by the Dozen. From there, they are sold to the krewe’s and thrown into the hands of thousands of parade goers.

The quantity of beads thrown from a single krewe is astonishing. While resistant to name which one, Groh said that one of the most famous super krewe’s is estimated to throw about $56,000 worth of beads per block this year. For a 72-block parade route, that translates to about 15 tons of beads thrown per block.

What is even more shocking is the miniscule percentage of those beads that were being recycled. When the Groh’s first founded Verdi Gras, they estimated that only 2% of the beads were being re-thrown.So what happens to the 98% that goes to the landfill? According to one Loyola University chemistry professor Dr. Kurt Birdwhistell, nothing will happen. The beads will simply sit in the landfill, taking up space, for years.

“Those polymers are made to last a long time. They are pretty resistant. Put them in a landfill and they will be there for decades. They degrade very, very slowly. When they finally do begin to degrade they will start to react with the sunlight and oxygen and begin to oxidize slowly, which is not a pretty process,” Birdwhistell said.

The beads may be out of sight, but they are most certainly not out of mind. What many do not realize is that having the beads in the landfills is expensive.

“The amount in the landfill is tremendous,” Groh said, “It costs the city and the taxpayers a lot of money. We know people who are working on getting these krewes taxed by the amount because the weight is so heavy and the city and street cleaners have to pay for it, and the landfill is expensive.”

Another point Groh wished to communicate is that beads are not part of the tradition of Mardi Gras, especially not plastic ones.

“The beads have only come in the past twenty five years. It’s not part of the cultural history of Mardi Gras,” Groh said

However, Groh also acknowledges that the exchange between the krewe member and the parade goer is a magnanimous one and she do not wish to take away from that. Instead she encourages krewe members and parade goers to think sustainably.

When asked for her best tips for having a green Mardi Gras, Groh said, “I would encourage you to think creatively around your space and don’t let things just drop because you don’t care for them. Collect them and take them to one of the bead places that recycle. If you are given the opportunity to ride in the parade, encourage people around you to throw recycled or throw local, and throw a lot less, to put the emphasis more on the show than the throw.”

There are several organizations around the city that have pitched in to help with the bead recycling process. Mentally challenged individuals at both the Arc of Greater New Orleans and St. Michael’s Special School sort the beads into different bundles which are then sold back to krewes.

Dr. Robert Thomas, the Director of Environmental Communications at Loyola University, agrees that re-selling beads would not only help curb the environmental impact but also work to stimulate the New Orleans economy.

“That’s internalizing the economics of the issue and that should be something we want to do, rather than always bringing the beads in from out of town and having people far, far away make money off the beads,” Thomas said.

Another reason why some of the larger krewes are hesitant to buy used beads is because they take pride in throwing beads marked with the krewe’s emblem. Thomas says that for this reason, organizations should target smaller krewes who have less of a vested interest in specialized beads.

“I think your bigger market for having these beads re-thrown are the smaller parades, the ones that don’t necessarily have krewe beads, because they are just going to go to these bead businesses and buy beads off the shelf. If they can get them cheaper buy buying them through a recycling program, that would work for everyone involved, including the city,” Thomas said.

Dr. Sue Mennino, former queen of the Krewe of Tucks and a Sociology of Mardi Gras professor at Loyola University, agreed that the environmental impact of these beads is something we should pay close attention to. While the Krewe of Tucks does not use recycled beads, many individual krewe members do. The krewe also makes an effort to throw other biodegradable products, such as toilet paper, an appropriate throw for the Krewe’s famously toilet-themed parade. Other krewes however, have not been as prudent.

“I’ve seen a lot of the parades get into the habit of throwing whole bags of beads. It’s wasteful, it’s dangerous, and I think it takes a lot of the fun out of it,” Mennino said.

Many groups have debated over an alternative to the plastic beads that would not only be safer for the environment but also preserve the tradition of parade throws. Birdwhistell suggests an alternative plastic called PLA, or Polylactic Acid, which is similar in appearance but much more environmentally-friendly.

“PLA is a newer product made from corn which degrades into lactic acid, so it’s a very biocompatible kind of degradation product. They certainly degrade a lot faster than any other plastic out there,” Birdwhistell said.

Last fall Verdi Gras hosted a green conference which brought together local artisans and krewe leaders to discuss alternative throws. Groh said many creative ideas were suggested.

“One person had medallion beads that if you threw them into the soil it became a wildflower. It was beautiful,” Groh said.

Mennino also supports the efforts to use more environmentally-sustainable throws because, as the Groh’s say, it’s about the show not the throw.

“I don’t think it’s challenging tradition too much to move away from the plastic beads because it is the act of throwing and catching that is the tradition, not what you are throwing,” Mennino said.

While some krewe members have been resistant to make more sustainable choices when it comes to Mardi Gras, Groh believes that there is a greater number of residents who feel compelled to take care of the city that was almost taken away from them. For Groh, seeing the damage from Hurricane Katrina is what really put it all in perspective.

“Out by the lake you saw all of the stuff from everyone’s houses piled up three stories high, and it really put the emphasis on the fact that we don’t need a lot of stuff to be happy, and what we do use, we should be responsible for. We saw it first hand with Katrina and then again with the oil spill. And what is the part of Mardi Gras that we really value? Being together and being with family. Thats the Joie de Vivre of Mardi Gras, not all of the plastic and the stuff.”








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