As Holly Groh left the Central Business District after Mardi Gras in 2011, she was stunned by the tons of trash — plastic bags, plastic cups, plastic beads — everywhere she looked. For 25 years in her adopted hometown, she has loved Carnival, but something felt different this time, she said.
"It was the year after the BP oil spill; our world had just been trashed," she said. "And yet we were seeing petroleum products all over the place."
Groh, a retired doctor, researched the path of the 25 million pounds of plastic beads that arrive in New Orleans every year, and found it led back to factories in China and before that to oil fields in Iraq. Only 2 percent of the beads are recycled, she said.
“We just couldn’t take the trash anymore,” she said.
So Groh, her husband, lawyer Kirk Groh, and several dozen relatives and friends started a grass-roots organization called VerdiGras, intended to encourage a sustainable, environmentally friendly Carnival less reliant on foreign throws.
Their inaugural event, an all-green masquerade ball titled, “It’s Easy Being Green,” is scheduled for Jan. 21.
Groh said the intention is to get back to what made Mardi Gras special in the first place: the show, the sense of community, the joie de vivre -- not polyurethane and polyethylene beads wrapped in plastic and shipped in cardboard.
She hopes her organization, which so far has about 60 members, will rouse others to come up with ideas for sustainable, locally produced alternatives.
For instance, someone showed her how to make beads out of newspaper, she said. Other people make them from wood.
“This is a very creative city,” she said. “We hope people start thinking of ways that they could make a greener choice, of better solutions than what we are doing.”
The goal, said VerdiGras member Stephanie Riegel, isn’t to be spoilsports.
“I love Mardi Gras very much,” said Riegel, a New Orleans native who now lives in Baton Rouge. “But like everything else in the world, it’s become so excessive. When I was growing up, we all caught beads, but you didn’t have millions of plastic beads made in China.”
Environmental consciousness could be a tough sell, Groh recognizes, for an event whose success was, until recently, measured in terms of the tonnage of trash it produced.
But she said the new group has had a positive response from the community. Groh recently met with city officials to coordinate plans for recycling along six blocks of St. Charles Avenue during the three Uptown parades on Feb. 11.
The VerdiGras All-Green Ball, on Jan. 21 from 8 p.m. to midnight at the Southport Music Hall in Jefferson, will include music by The Susan Cowsill Band. The ball will be preceded by a patron party from 7 to 8 p.m. with food by New Orleans chef Robert Bruce. Tickets are $30 per person or $50 per couple; or $100 for the patron party.
Proceeds will be split among the Arc of Greater New Orleans, the New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation and St. Michael’s Special School’s Joy Center, which recycles, repackages and sells Carnival beads.
For tickets or more information, call 504.710.4780 or visit verdigras.org.
Claire Galofaro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 985.898.4828.