There’s nothing better during Mardi Gras than the catch. You make eye contact with a masked rider on a float and score a piece of Carnival treasure.
For two weeks, you fill bags with pounds of glittery beads, hula hoops, glow-in-the-dark bracelets and necklaces and blinky rings.
Then, at the end, you‘ve got to figure out what to do with all that plastic, most of which you’ll never put on again.
Some throws are usable, like the zippered pouches and mini-notebooks from Muses, the cellphone lanyard from Nyx or the glass beads some krewes have started throwing again. Some are coveted keepsakes, like the Zulu coconut, Muses shoes and Nyx purses.
Or, the yellow flags tossed to the crowd Thursday night with “Never Been Thrown, Float 20” printed on them. That’s definitely a keeper.
Some people use beads for their art, and some sort their loot and take it to ARC of Greater New Orleans to be repackaged and reused.
But most of those strings of plastic go into landfills or, as New Orleanians have learned, into our storm drains. Tons of beads and other trinkets never make it home with anyone. They litter the streets and sidewalks and are scooped up and sent to landfills by the street-cleaning crews who follow parades.
We can’t go on this way. Or, we shouldn’t.
The city found 46 tons of Mardi Gras beads in New Orleans’ drainage system along five blocks of St. Charles Avenue in 2018. That’s 92,000 pounds on just one small section of the parade route.
Street-cleaning crews scoop up about 900 tons of waste on average during the Mardi Gras season. Last year, that number was nearly 1,200 tons, according to the city.
“We have to face the consequences at the end of the parade,” Howard Mielke, a Tulane University pharmacology professor, told NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune reporter Maria Clark. “Watching the gigantic sanitation trucks come by at the end… visually, it’s spectacular to see that take place.”
It is impressive how quickly that happens and how clean the route is afterward. But that feat covers up the fact that we are putting tons of waste into our environment that isn’t going to break down and could have toxins in it.
Mielke has researched the amount of lead in Mardi Gras beads picked up along St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street.
His 2013 study found lead in four bead samples, including small green beads, large green beads, non-metalized black beads and non-metalized small red beads. That small number might reassure some people. But he also found higher traces of lead accumulated in the ground along the parade routes.
“That’s old soil that has had years and years of exposure to lead. Kids pick beads up off the ground and don’t know they have been contaminated by the parade route itself,” Mielke said.
Verdi Gras, a group formed in 2011 to increase recycling of Mardi Gras throws, commissioned a separate study in 2013. Researchers with The Ecology Center, a non-profit environmental organization in Ann Arbor, Michigan, screened 87 Mardi Gras bead necklaces, bracelets and other accessories. Fifty-six out of the 87 products tested had concentrations of lead above 100 ppm, which is the limit for children’s products set by the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.
The highest amount of lead detected was far beyond that limit — 29,864 ppm in a green, round bead necklace.
The necklaces aren’t necessarily a threat, at least when they are new. But as they degrade and the finish wears off, lead exposure is possible, the lead researcher said.
There are alternatives being developed. An LSU biological sciences professor has a patent pending on biodegradable beads made from algae. Misti and Aron Medders, who live Uptown, have started making environmentally-friendly throws to sell. They planned to make 550 dozen of their “No-Call Nola” necklaces made with black and white recyclable plastic beads and a little yellow penalty flag.
Recycling efforts are growing, and the city is putting bumpers across some storm drains to keep the beads out.
That is a start, but we need to do much more. South Louisiana is one of the most environmentally fragile places on earth. It needs to be better protected from pollution.
No one wants to lose the thrill of the catch, but we should be more thoughtful and careful about what gets tossed off a float.