By Christian Willbern, Loyola University New Orleans
In a rainbow sea of glitters and feathers, NOLA Craft Culture owner Lisette Constantin is working towards a greener Mardi Gras.
“Here, in house, we’re trying to do wherever we can to make as much of an impact as possible it does in terms of sustainability,” Constantin said.
After years of throwing plastic trinkets in the streets, krewes and community members are looking for a more sustainable way to celebrate, including collectible and reusable throws, recycling programs, and the creation of biodegradable Mardi Gras beads.
The City Council had litter in mind when it prohibited riders from tossing single-use plastic bags, paper products that do not biodegrade and any package containing bulk throws in its recent revisions to the Carnival parade ordinances.
It’s not just the bags littering the streets, however. Tons of beads and other throws end up in the storm drains every year.
NOLA Craft Culture in Mid-City is selling more items such as biodegradable glitters and biodegradable confetti.
“We also carry other non-traditional items like these beautiful Indonesian wings that people will want to keep if they see them on a throw,” Constantin said. “We also have rolled out the idea about using natural stone or glass beads as opposed to single-use plastic beads, which has gotten a lot of traction on social media.”
Constantin says natural throws have captured the attention of many krewes this year. Members of some krewes, following the lead of walking parades such as Chewbaccus, Boheme, Krewe du Vieux and ‘tit Rex, are making more of their own throws using, for example, recycled materials and resin.
“It’s not something that you’re just going to throw in the garbage,” Constantin said.
Muses founder Staci Rosenberg said that the popular women’s krewe has always emphasized “reMUSEable” throws.
“From soap to earbuds, socks to water bottles, luggage tags to pens and notebooks, bandanas to scarves, Muses has been a leader in throwing functional items every year, along with those that are cherished, and worn or displayed,” Rosenberg said.
“Of course, the upcycled shoe, which was originally an homage to the Zulu coconut, is a perfect example of this. We also throw lots of tote bags, pencil bags, cosmetic bags — many of which are actually made from recycled materials.”
However, Rosenberg acknowledges the catch-and-throw-away culture permeating Mardi Gras.
“People never feel like they catch enough no matter what we do, so we have decided to go with that and throw less but focus on quality over quantity. This year, in order to reduce our impact, we have made a conscious decision to reduce the number of beads that are thrown,” Rosenberg said.
“Of 45 logo’d items, only eight are traditional plastic beads, two of which have the logo’d medallion affixed to them with a lobster claw so that it can easily be removed and hooked to a backpack, purse or belt loop and the bead can be recycled.”
While single-use plastic throws are in circulation this Carnival season, community organizations like Arc of Greater New Orleans set up recycling programs.
ArcGNO, a nonprofit servicing the disabled has been recycling Mardi Gras throws for 30 years, creating jobs for people to sort and repackage the beads and sell them to riders. Its bead-recycling program has grown exponentially in recent years.
“We have more community partners, and we have larger community bins out that can handle more, so we have the individual rolling recycle bins,” said ArcGNO spokeswoman Ann Christian. “Plus, we have these monster bins. They’re like oversized Goodwill donation bins. But, this year we have a new float, a new throwback float that’s going to be rolling in several parades.”
Christian said demands for more bins and the interest in bead collection has skyrocketed.
“We’ve definitely seen an increase in bead recycling over the last three or four years, but it’s been pretty dramatic since the drain stories broke,” she said. “Last year, we collected over 180 tons of waste. We have also been bombarded with requests for bins over the last few years as well.”
Although satisfied with their efforts, Christian said Arc strives for more.
“180 pounds was not put in a landfill last year because of our recycling efforts. So you know, the more we can do of that, the better,” Christian said.
A few of the more extravagant superkrewes have become more aware of the environmental hazards of Carnival parades. For the past five years, the Krewe of Bacchus has been doing its part to reduce the amount of plastic beads that end up in New Orleans’ drainage system.
“In 2015 our members threw more than 20,000 gross bags of plastic beads. This year we will throw less than half as much — 9,648 gross bags,” said Clark Brennan, captain of Bacchus.
“Reducing plastic waste has been our long-term strategy. In 2019 we threw 15% fewer molded plastic beads on a string than we did in 2018. This year we expect another 10% to 15% reduction,” said Jennifer Burke, Bacchus’ general manager.
The krewe’s theme bead this year is magnetic, so it can be used as a refrigerator magnet. Bacchus was an early adapter of the plastic cup as a reusable throw, introduced by the Krewe of Alla on the West Bank in 1980. It brought back glass beads in 2018.
Three years ago the riders on Bacchus’ Bacchatality superfloat — whose riders work in the hospitality industry — began throwing kitchen items. “This year more than 50% of our throws are non-bead,” said board member David Blitch. Those items include aprons, cooking spoons, spatulas, two types of potholders, a chef’s hat, a silicone wineglass and a pop-up rain hat.
“There is much more awareness,” Constantin said. “I think now people don’t want a whole bunch of plastic stuff from China. People really want things that are usable and reusable.”
This story was updated after posting to include more information from Arc of Greater New Orleans. The information on the introduction of plastic cups as throws was also clarified.