The annual New Orleans celebration of Mardi Gras is unlike anything I’ve ever seen anywhere. Its focus is parades: lots of them. Between January 6 and “Fat Tuesday” they have literally dozens of them. This year there were over seventy parades, each with its own theme, costumes, paraders and music. It’s a celebration that is beautiful, funny, overwhelming and raucous, and it is steeped in a wealth of arcane and fascinating tradition.
It’s also a particularly obnoxious example of waste run amok.
(You can also find this video on my IG and TikTok)
It’s been long accepted that the festivities of Mardi Gras annually trash the city. (I first wrote about this phenomenon back in 2020.) Mere hours after a parade’s conclusion, the city clean-up crews hit the streets with all the subtlety of an amphibious assault. In fact, being able to handle such an onslaught of litter even seems to be a point of pride, as in “We may not be able to fill the potholes, but we know how to clean up after a parade!” Until fairly recently, New Orleans officials used to judge the success of their Mardi Gras tourist season by measuring the amount of trash that was collected in its wake.
Of course, the more trash, the greater that year’s success.
Parading in anticipation of Lent has been a New Orleans tradition for a long, long time: over two hundred years. In his book Mardi Gras Beads, Doug MacCash explains that it wasn’t until the 1870s that throwing inexpensive trinkets to parade watchers became part of the tradition. And at least as early as the 1920s, newspapers were commenting on the disaster left behind.
“Empty boxes, shreds of paper and broken favors,” as one Times Picayune reporter described. In that same article, one young girl reportedly asked her mother, “Can God see all this mess?”
But really, they hadn’t seen anything yet, because in the 1950s came the advent of a magical material that was durable, dirt-cheap, and could be made into almost anything. In just a few short decades this material would find its way into every aspect of the Mardi Gras celebration. From the ubiquitous bead necklaces to cups, toys, beer cozies and stuffed animals, not to mention the plethora of wrappers and bags they arrived in, these days it’s hard to even imagine a Mardi Gras without the presence of plastic.
But I’m going to argue that we can and we should. Further, I’d argue that even if you don’t give two figs about Mardi Gras, it matters.
As you can see in my video above, there are signs- lots of them- that many Mardi Gras paraders are thinking about what they choose to throw from their floats and choosing alternatives to plastic. In the handful of parades I attended this year we saw aluminum cups, ceramic medallions, glass beads, wooden train whistles, biodegradable glitter, cloth bags and even fresh flowers being thrown.
Another thing I saw for the first time: boxes in hotel lobbies for “Bead Recycling.”
And lastly? I saw a lot of non-Mardi Gras efforts at sustainability too— admittedly some better than others— but all of which told me that plastic, waste and sustainability are issues on the minds of many New Orleanians.
I was also delighted to have the opportunity to visit Vintage Green Review, New Orleans’ first zero waste supply and bulk refill shop. Unlike some “sustainability” shops I’ve been to that feature clothing for people who want to play Little House on the Prairie, and don’t mind paying $300 for a handmade butter dish, Vintage Green Review focuses on real world stuff that you might actually need: natural rubber hair ties, plastic-free Q-Tips, toothpaste tabs. They’ve been in business since 2021 and I’m kind of jealous. I want one in my town.
So, despite everything, there are signs that things at Mardi Gras, and in New Orleans, are changing.
But what does this matter to the rest of the world?
I think the reason it matters is that we all celebrate things. Mardi Gras is an outsized example, but in our current culture, plastic waste is virtually synonymous with all types of celebrating, from Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade to a four-year-old’s birthday party. And I think often, when we’re presented with the need or opportunity for change, we mistakenly believe the choice is between going on as we have been, or giving up on the activity altogether.
Do we have to give up on Mardi Gras— or parades or parties— if we want to stop using single-use plastic?
Of course not. Once upon a time we had celebrations without disposables, and we can do it again. We just need to think differently. Change will follow.
And the really good news is? In New Orleans that process has already begun.