This article was created in partnership with the National Geographic Society.
In 2011, Holly Groh and her family stood on a street corner in New Orleans, giddy with anticipation as the Mardi Gras parade approached. Her husband’s family had congregated at that spot every year for decades. Her children were always entranced by the raucous, exuberant performances—and also by the shiny beads and other “throws,” the trinkets tossed by the parading “krewes.”
But this time something felt different for Groh. The year before, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill had sullied the Gulf coast, coating beaches, plants, and animals from Texas to Florida. Groh knew that the tons of shiny plastic beads flying overhead—which were ultimately made from oil—would end up piled on the streets, clogging the gutters, and eventually lining a landfill.
“It was very poignant for us to see all the Mardi Gras beads that just weren’t being picked up, the cups scattered on the ground, the throws, and the bottles—all of which were plastic products. It was just so disheartening,” she says.
Soon after, Groh and her husband started Verdi Gras, an organization dedicated to greening the holiday. It’s now part of a growing movement of people and groups from across the city who are trying to make Mardi Gras more sustainable.
“The city used to measure the success of Mardi Gras by how much trash it produced,” says Kevin Fitzwilliam, a lifelong New Orleans resident and krewe member. He’s the founder of Atlas Beads, a company that sells biodegradable paper beads. “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?”
The plastic revolution
Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday—the French term means “Fat Tuesday”—is a holiday that marks the eve of the lean season of Lent and the climax of a season of celebration in New Orleans. Each year, between early January and Mardi Gras, about 75 parades loop through the city. The celebrations are economically as well as culturally important; in 2014, the last year for which numbers are available, researchers estimated that the festivities generated over $164 million in direct economic impact for the city—and an indirect impact that’s far greater.
In the late 19th century, celebrants parading the streets first started throwing bonbons to the crowds lining the streets. Soon after the Zulu krewe formed in 1909, they became the first to share a themed “throw” with their onlookers, tossing out gold-colored walnuts. A few years later they switched to coconuts—first unadorned and hairy, then decorated, a tradition that continues to this day.
Around that time beads entered the arsenal of throwables. Garlands of colorful glass beads, imported from Japan and later from Czechoslovakia, sparkled as they spun off the fingers of the krewe members and arced through the air.
In the 1960s, plastic beads exploded onto the scene. Krewes embraced the cheap, colorful strands. For onlookers, catching a throw went from something rare to something expected.
“It wasn't always that way,” says Dana Eness, the executive director of the Urban Conservancy, a nonprofit that is thinking about ways to green Mardi Gras. “I remember when it was the same feeling, except for the sheer volume of the throws.”
Now, hundreds of thousands of bead necklaces collect in the streets each year—and the beads have been found in the muddy sediments of nearby waterways, carried along by wastewater as it flows away from the city. Like all petroleum-based plastics, they will last for centuries.
But is there a better way?
Last year, the New Orleans sanitation department scooped up over 1,200 tons of waste after all the parades wrapped up. A lot of it was beads. In advance of the parade season, the city department of public works had made a concerted effort to clear clogged storm drains. They removed more than 3,000 tons of debris—including 46 tons of leftover Mardi Gras beads collected on just five blocks of St. Charles Avenue, the main parade route.
One problem, says Rachel Skowyra, a project leader with the Young Leadership Council (YLC), a community-focused nonprofit, is that there’s no official recycling system in place for the holiday. A dearth of trash cans across the city means that trash piles up on the streets.
YLC is developing its own Mardi Gras recycling program. With partner groups they have rolled out crews of volunteers who walk alongside some of the parades, passing out bags for trash, recycling, and unwanted beads. At just one parade last year, says Skowyra, they collected 10,000 cans, 2,000 plastic bottles and 1.25 tons of beads that would have otherwise ended up on the street.
Fitzwilliam, the founder of Atlas Beads, is part of a krewe that’s incorporating trash pickup into the very act of parading. The “Trashformers,” as they call themselves, kitted out bikes with welded-on shopping carts, painted electric green, to collect trash along their route. Parading in costume, they dance and high-five onlookers as they pick up trash.
“We’re flipping the script,” Fitzwilliam says. “Waste reduction may not seem cool, but guess what—if you're not picking up the trash off the ground, you're not having as much fun as we are.”
Another solution is actually to reuse the beads that get tossed each year. The nonprofit Arc of Greater New Orleans collects beads after the celebrations die down and employs adults with intellectual disabilities to repair the strands and sell them back to krewes the following year.
Yet another option is to make the beads themselves more sustainable. Naohiro Kato, a plant biologist at Louisiana State University, is developing a new technique to make biodegradable beads from a kind of algae that could be grown and processed locally. Other companies are sourcing paper or glass beads again.
Nothing can compete on price with the cheap plastic beads.
“Now, it's about volume,” says Gary Zoller, the founder of Throw Me Something Green, a company importing non-plastic Mardi Gras beads. “Krewes want sparkly, crazy stuff in the sky for the whole route. But the goal we have is to change people's perceptions of what is a successful Mardi Gras: Not just that you end up with the most stuff, but stuff you’d actually want to keep.”
It’s the show, not the throw
The most important change that’s needed, says Cherice Harrison Nelson, a Queen in the Guardians of Flame Maroon Society and a lifelong participant in Mardi Gras festivities, has nothing to do with stuff. It’s refocusing on the performances by the krewes and the personal connections that make the experience meaningful.
“Some people are looking for the throws, yes, and the excitement of the throws. They’re in the moment, not thinking about how they'll clog [drains] and go out into the natural waterways,” Nelson says. “But for us, what's highly prized is the interaction with other human beings.”
She and her krewe walk rather than ride on floats, so they’re eye-to-eye with onlookers. They move through communities that have seen them perform for years.
“You hear the drum, the tambourine and the singing—you have a metabolic response to that,” Nelson says. “You can feel it in your soul.”