The Plastic Problem at Mardi Gras

by Sybil Bullock

February 16, 2018

Mardi Gras is a festival of indulgence and excess, but is it possible to celebrate this historic carnival without creating so much trash? The parades’ iconic plastic beads, referred to locally as “throws”, are full of toxic chemicals and can never be thrown away. It’s time for a change.

2018 marks the 300th birthday of New Orleans, a city famed for its jazz music, world-class cuisine, and Mardi Gras – a carnival sometimes nicknamed “the biggest free party on Earth” that precedes the Catholic season of Lent. In reality, Mardi Gras is the farthest thing from “free,” as the financial, environmental, and health costs of single-use plastic waste bears down heavily on New Orleans. In what should come as no surprise to anyone, these costs weigh down heavier onto the city’s low income residents and communities of color, who have been disproportionately affected by environmental injustice for quite some time. This year, as the world is coming together to break free from plastic, we need all of New Orleans on board before it is too late.

Mardi Gras celebrates the community spirit and creativity of New Orleans, but not without a fair amount of excess and indulgence to boot. The aftermath is extreme waste, as the parades toss out 25 million pounds of plastic beads – and 150 tons of waste overall – every year. But it wasn’t always like this. While the first Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans occured in the 1830s, the tradition of throwing beads – originally made from cheap glass – began with the Rex parade in the 1920s and shifted to plastic in the late 1970s. Despite efforts to regulate the safety of these plastic beads, an Ecology Center study found Mardi Gras beads contain thousands of pounds of hazardous chemicals like flame retardants and lead, as well as other toxins linked to asthma, birth defects, learning disabilities, reproductive problems, liver toxicity and cancer. An alarming two thirds of the Mardi Gras beads tested in this study exceeded the federal safety limit for lead in children’s products. If these beads are not safe for children, why are we using them at all?

Single-use plastics, specifically Mardi Gras beads, are costing the city of New Orleans millions of dollars in cleanup and demonstrates that there is no such thing as throwing something “away.” Just because plastic is recyclable doesn’t mean it actually gets recycled – in fact, over 90% of plastics end up in landfills and waterways that eventually dump into the ocean. Just last month, 93,000 pounds of plastic beads were found clogging the storm drains lining St Charles Avenue, the epicenter of Mardi Gras parades. These storm drains lead to waterways, contributing to a toxic cycle as the equivalent of a truckload of plastic enters the ocean every single minute. Plastic can take centuries to break down and this pollution continues to rapidly accumulate in the marine environment, entering our food chain and negatively impacting human health.

Plastic beads falling into a storm drain on Bourbon Street.

Fortunately, New Orleans is a city of creative people. Local residents are taking the plastic problem into their own hands, with biodegradable bead companies, recycling stations, and organizations like ArcGNO employing people with intellectual disabilities to recycle Mardi Gras beads. Even a few Krewes, the groups that organize parade floats, have begun to change the culture around plastic by throwing local Louisiana products and other hand-made, locally-sourced “throws” that would benefit the local economy rather than import plastic beads from abroad. 

Working to shift local mindsets around single-use plastics can be fun, too.  Some paint sea turtles onto storm drains to show the journey of plastic from curbside litter to sea turtle killer, as 1 in 3 have ingested plastic. 

A New Orleans storm drain painted as a sea turtle.

Some dress as a shark pretending to choke on a plastic bag, reminding us that hundreds of thousands of marine life die yearly as a direct result of ocean plastic pollution

A New Orleans college student dressed as a shark choking on plastic at Mardi Gras.

Even the New Orleans aquarium has a tank filled with floating plastic bags, illustrating how prevalent plastic is in our oceans.

The Audubon Aquarium of the Americas in New Orleans features a plastic bag tank with a message: “Avoid using single-use plastic products.”

While these initiatives definitely help, we need bigger solutions to radically transform our culture of disposable, single-use plastic products altogether. Recycling is important, but we can’t recycle our way out of this mess entirely, especially considering that most of the plastic waste leftover from Mardi Gras is contaminated and can’t be recycled. And we can’t push the problem onto temporary low-wage cleanup workers forever. Scientists agree that cleanup efforts are necessary, but that the real lasting solution must be reducing plastic production at the source. This won’t happen overnight, so what can we do NOW?

Bead recycling stations are a good idea, but without measures for proper accountability, they don’t work. We must go bigger than recycling.

Mardi Gras celebrations precede the first day of Lent, a Catholic season of fasting leading up to Easter. Some are using this faith-based opportunity to commit to a plastic-free Lent. Indeed, even the Pope has issued environmental warnings about the scourge of plastic waste and ocean pollution, emphasizing our earthly duty as “the oceans not only contain most of the planet, but also most of the wide variety of living things.” The colors of Mardi Gras beads were chosen to remind us of three important themes – purple for justice, gold for power and green for faith. Perhaps by thinking about the social justice of the production and disposal of the beads, we can reclaim power and shift the culture of disposable plastic that dominates this holiday. I have faith that it’s possible.

Whether or not you celebrate Mardi Gras or Lent, there are many ways we can all commit to reducing our dependence on single-use plastic. Our oceans, climate, and coastal communities depend on people around the world demanding solutions to address the plastic problem at its source. Click here to learn how YOU can take a stand against plastic! 

Sybil Bullock

By Sybil Bullock

Sybil Bullock is a digital organizer at Greenpeace USA. She works to educate, empower and engage supporters to take action against single-use plastics and ocean pollution.

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