Mardi Gras Is an Environmental Disaster

Residents
and businesses along the Gulf Coast may be missing the Mardi Gras festivities
canceled due to the pandemic this year. The planet probably isn’t. Shiny
Mardi Gras beads used to be few in number and relatively high in quality. But
in the past few decades, as numerous articles have now pointed out, the
practice has gotten out of control, in a region already courting environmental
disaster. Unlike other “throws” you might catch from a float, like cups and
blinky toys, Mardi Gras beads aren’t safe to  put in your mouth or even handle without washing your hands afterward. Last year, an  Ann Arbor Ecology
Center
study found most Mardi Gras beads to be made of the dead electronics and
computer equipment that America ships to China for disposal. Chinese companies,
under more lax environmental regulations, crush and melt the electronics into
beads, cover them in shiny lead paint, then ship them back to the United States glowing
with neurotoxins, flame
retardants, arsenic, cadmium, and other cancer-causing agents. Environmentalists
and researchers who study the Gulf are hoping cities will take the opportunity
in this strangely quiet Carnival season to change how Mardi Gras is celebrated going
forward. “Mardi Gras beads are polycarbonate, which is what plexiglass is made
of, and it’s very dense, meaning most beads don’t float,” oceanography
professor  Mark C. Benfield, who studies
the effect of litter on the Gulf of Mexico, told me. “A lot of the beads from
the parades get into the storm
drains
and are pumped out into canals and bayous that drain into the Mississippi River.
They drop to the bottom of the river, where they’re carried along the channel
out into very deep water. Somewhere off the Mississippi Delta, there’s gotta be
an enormous quantity of Mardi Gras beads sitting on the seafloor.” New Orleans typically absorbs the fame
and the blame for thousands of tons of Carnival garbage. But in fact, the
entire Gulf Coast from Texas to Florida celebrates Mardi Gras by throwing
poisonous beads. American
Mardi Gras was born in Mobile, Alabama, in 1703, fifteen years before New
Orleans was founded. To this day, Mobile hosts parades almost every night for
weeks during the pre-Lenten Carnival season, culminating on the Tuesday for
which Mardi Gras is named. In 2020, Mobile’s Mystics of Time parade had 138,600
people clamoring for beads thrown from 19 floats by almost 1,000 riders. “We
cleaned up One Mile Creek storm drain, and it was chockablock
full of Mardi Gras beads,” said Casi Callaway of Mobile Baykeeper , an environmental group that
received a grant specifically to reduce Mardi Gras waste in Mobile. “And all
the way to the river we found beads, cups, little plastic footballs, and stuff,
all headed to the Gulf of Mexico.” Pensacola, Florida’s Mardi Gras last year drew around 90,000 revelers, while Carnival krewes (as the folks
riding the floats are called) at Galveston, Texas’s 11-day
celebration threw three million beads to around 250,000 visitors. Not to be
out-trashed, the state of Mississippi’s 20 parades last year left behind 5,406 pounds of wasted beads .
Anna Harris, executive director for
the Coastal Mardi Gras Museum and a member of the Gulf Coast Carnival
Association, which has paraded in Biloxi since 1908, estimates her krewe alone
buys around $500,000 worth of beads each year to throw from its 100-plus
floats. “The cleanup is a war zone,” Harris says. “It takes them a whole day to
clean it all up. They have to vacuum out the storm drains.” Similar
celebrations play out in most Mississippi cities: Pass Christian, Bay St. Louis,
Long Beach, Ocean Springs, and Pascagoula. Mardi Gras could be considered one of the region’s
top petrochemical polluters. Given
the sheer quantity of poisonous beads dumped, all at once, year after year,
along the entire Gulf Coast, Mardi Gras could be considered one of the region’s
top petrochemical polluters. “The chemical levels are sublethal, but they are
adding to the overall toxin loading in the Gulf’s waters,” said Dr. Benfield. Those of us missing
Mardi Gras right now can take heart that at least this year, this one little
year, we aren’t adding to this massive problem. And in that pause, there’s an opportunity
to work toward a greener celebration next year. “A
beadless Mardi Gras has been hard to implement krewe-wide, because our audience
likes their beads,” said  Maureen Shuh, recycling coordinator for  Krewe of Muses, who claims that her popular ladies-only krewe is done using plastic
beads.* “Through the years, we’ve been slowly making a conscious effort to
decrease the number of beads, or anything that looks like beads.” The
popularity of Muses’ signature throw, the hand-painted high-heel shoe, proves
that homemade throws rarely end up in landfills. “All my friends give me their
old shoes, we paint them, and people go crazy for them,” says Shuh, who pays
$800 in dues each year to ride among 1,200 krewe members, and then spends
another $1,000 on throws. “But Muses throws are all things you can take home
and use. Last year we threw out bike bells, pocketbooks, cell phone cases. We
only throw beads if you can wear them every day: real jewelry.” Muses
and several other large krewes are in talks with Glass Half Full , New Orleans’s only glass recycler
(the city recycles only plastic and aluminum). Glass Half Full collects and recycles
unwanted glass into sand and glass cullet (fine crushed glass) that is used for
disaster relief projects and coastal restoration, and also to make glass Mardi
Gras beads, not unlike the imported Czechoslovakian
beads  originally thrown at
parades before the 1970s plastics explosion. “We have a waste problem with glass,
and we have a waste problem with beads,” says Glass Half Full’s Franziska
Trautmann. “Some of the bigger krewes don’t want to change up unless we can
match China’s prices for the same volume of beads, which won’t happen, because
we want to pay fair wages. But we have Muses, and Krewe of Red Beans is partnering
with us. Rex, the ‘King of
Carnival, ’ is a potential buyer. People are waking up and getting on
board.”   In the last several years, many small,
eco-friendly, local bead companies have popped up, such as  Bayou Throws
and  Atlas Handmade Beads .
Scientists at Louisiana State University even  developed biodegradable Mardi Gras beads made from algae. Concerned krewes also try to throw goodies that people will keep: Some krewes talk of switching from
beads to wooden doubloon coins that people can cash in with local businesses,
as  Popeyes chicken
restaurant did in the 1970s . The
company  Grounds Krewe sells green throws like jute sacks of local coffee, rice, and jambalaya mix. Most of these alternatives have been
around for a while now, though, and I’ve still never caught any algae beads
along the parade routes. For now, the krewes still prefer the cheap, useless
fireworks display of poisonous polycarbonates. New Orleans city government never
discusses a ban on these beads. Recycling still seems like the only “solution”
most city governments are willing to try. Every city along the Gulf Coast
collects used beads at the post office, library, or City Hall. The
Arc of Greater New Orleans hires adults with developmental
disabilities to refurbish and repackage used beads to be resold to krewes.
Recycling, though, just keeps the poisonous beads in rotation. All these beads continue to land upon a
region already suffering
under the thumb of Big Oil. And the threat of hurricanes. And sea-level
rise. And a 6,000–7,000-square-mile “dead zone” in the Gulf where almost no
living thing can breathe. One of Dr. Benfield’s colleagues at LSU, Stephen Midway, has  discovered  high levels of polyethylene in both Louisiana seafood and Mardi Gras beads. Coronavirus may not have too many
upsides, but for this one year, the Gulf Coast isn’t throwing millions of
tons of poisonous beads into landfills and waterways. For just this one year, we
don’t have to tell our kids, “Don’t put that in your mouth!” For this one year, we are not exacerbating the massive environmental problem along the banks of
America’s most beautiful water body. Surely that feeling is worth a few policy
changes, so that Mardi Gras is a bit less toxic when it returns.

2021-02-11 | Apocalypse Soon, Mardi Gras Day, New Orleans | English |