Mardi Gras was a long-standing occurrence in other parts of the world before the French introduced it to Louisiana in 1699. The details of how the original ‘carnival’ evolved into today’s annual festivities are a little unclear. What we do know is that people will find any reason for a party! Mardi Gras is no exception, with yearly events that range from small gatherings to elaborate celebrations. While the celebrations take center stage, the environmental impact of Mardi Gras is also important to discuss.
To understand more about Mardi Gras, let’s get into some of its history. Founded in 1872, the Rex krewe helped establish many modern Mardi Gras traditions in New Orleans. Still a driving force today, Rex is credited with designating the now widely recognized colors of the event. Purple, green, and gold are the trademark combination you’ll see on everything from costumes to decor, and each color has significance. Purple and gold represent royal colors, but Rex also labeled purple to symbolize justice, green to mean faith, and gold to represent power.
Mardi Gras beads often come in these colors, but the now-ubiquitous beads weren’t added to the celebration until the 1900s. The 1960s and 70s introduced an explosion of plastic bead options. Thanks to the common use-and-dispose mindset during that era, beads began to make up a copious amount of the waste produced during Mardi Gras each year. Over the years, the celebration has continued to accumulate unimaginable amounts of drink cups, party favors, decorations, masks, props, costume parts and so much more. Year after year, the city of New Orleans spends millions of dollars hauling away tons of garbage following the parades and parties.
Much of this waste is plastic, a product of the petroleum industry. This isn’t the only problem petroleum has caused for the New Orleans area, though. In 2010, the Deepwater Horizon spill off the nearby coastline became the largest spill in U.S. history. In January 2022, another oil spill caused by a corroded pipeline took place just outside the city. Now it seems the region is battling the petroleum from two angles — when it comes out of the ground and when it’s turned into wasteful single-use items.
Obviously, this kind of disregard for the environment is worth bringing to the headlines. It’s not even just the waste that litters the streets, later to be hauled to landfills, that drives the issue. It’s much bigger.
New Orleans is built on the water, which means it has an intimate relationship with the health of its waterways and wildlife. What goes into the water can come back to destroy the city, as multiple hurricanes and resulting floods have shown. Mardi Gras, with its copious indulgences, brings friction along with festivities. Take, for example, those ubiquitous beads. Not only will the inexpensive, non-recyclable plastic material spend eternity in the atmosphere, but some beads have equally harmful ingredients to consider. Some studies have found potentially-unsafe levels of lead, cadmium and other elements in the beads. While it’s bad enough to think a child could be putting lead into their mouth, that same lead is also leaching into the soil or flowing directly into the water, including the nearby Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River.
All of these waterways eventually end up in the Gulf of Mexico, so any pollution affects fish and other marine animals along the way. In turn, humans and other animals that eat the fish ingest those toxins. It’s a simple snapshot of a system where we pull resources from the ground, use more resources to make cheap trinkets, toss our trash all about, and allow the chemicals to seep back into our food and drinking water.
We’re certainly not the first to bring this topic to light, and several companies have popped up offering solutions to the problem while encouraging people to celebrate responsibly in a traditional — and low waste — manner. For example, Atlas Handmade Beads sells Mardi Gras “Big Bead” Necklaces handcrafted out of recycled magazine paper by artisans in Uganda. Founder and New Orleans local Kevin Fitzwilliam said, “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?”
Louisiana State University Biological Sciences professor Naohiro Kato agrees. Using resources at LSU, Kato created plant-based biodegradable Mardi Gras beads entirely out of large amounts of microscopic algae, or microalgae.
The truth is, whether you’re looking for decorations, masks, beads, drink cups, costumes, dinnerware, table coverings, floats or any other products, you can find a solution that’s reusable, recyclable, biodegradable and/or plastic-free. But the biggest challenge might be changing expectations of visitors who expect the ‘throws’ in favor of being content with a colorful and entertaining experience.
Have plastic beads you want to recycled? GoNola has helpful resources to connect you with recycling options year-round.
Images via Pixabay and Steven Miller