Happy Little Tortillas

April 1, 2020 § 10 Comments

Confession: I’m not a gluten avoider. Like, in Any. Way. I think homemade bread is one of the most delicious things in the world, and luckily no one in our house has a gluten intolerance because in our pandemic seclusion we are baking a LOT of bread.

I find baking bread to be very meditative and stress relieving, but it is also money-saving and trips-to-the-store-saving. You can avoid unnecessary and unhealthy added sugar (it is a popular misconception that bread needs added sugar to rise) and all those horrible things Big Food loves to add: trans fats, mold inhibitors, colorings and emulsifiers. The amazing thing about bread is that you really only need a handful of simple ingredients, and time.

Of course yet another huge bonus is that making your own bread also serves to eliminate lots of wasteful packaging, much of which is bound for the landfill (I’m looking at YOU, cellophane windows).

In my last post I included a favorite sandwich bread recipe … shortly after that I made these flour tortillas. It makes a big bunch up all at once- like 30 or so- good for anything you can think of: burritos, quesadillas, wraps, etc. They definitely take time, but right now that’s something many of us have in abundance. Give these a try and let me know how they turn out.

Flour Tortillas

In a large bowl whisk together:

  • 6 cups flour
  • 1 Tbsp salt
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder

Then add:

  • 1 cup of bacon fat OR lard OR room temperature butter

Use a pastry cutter or your hands to combine thoroughly.

Add 2 1/4 cups very hot water and combine with hands again.

Knead for 3 minutes.

Let sit 15-20 minutes.

Then pull off small, golf-ball amounts of dough and roll flat with a rolling pin until very, very thin. Kate Moss thin. You will almost be able to see through them. Heat a cast iron pan until very hot (NO need to add oil or butter) and fry until both sides bubble a little and have small brown spots.

If possible, it’s easiest to have one person rolling and another frying. Ilsa and I like to tag team on these jobs. She has become an EXPERT fryer.

As you make them, place them on a plate wrapped in a clean dishtowel to keep them from drying out. I like to store them in our breadbox this way, but if you don’t think you’ll eat them all up in a few days you can freeze some for later.

NOTE: You do not use a tortilla press for these flour tortillas; a press is useful for corn tortillas.

Steve’s Happy Little Tortillas Recipe in Pictures

My husband Steve’s favorite thing to use these for is something he made up: he sprinkles a tortilla with olive oil, Parmesan, chopped garlic and rosemary and toasts in the toaster oven to make these lovely little… what? I don’t know what to call them except Steve’s Happy Little Tortillas, and they are delicious.

Lunch at Our Table

March 27, 2020 § 1 Comment

Lately, a surprising amount of my energy is devoted to the task of not being terrified. I’m a person who suffers from obsessive anxiety, so even pre-Corona virus I was really, really good at washing my hands. Like, I already sang the alphabet song.

Now I sing Wagner’s Ring cycle.

Luckily, for me, I have enough other things to keep my circular thought patterns at bay: the task of keeping a houseful of teenagers and young adults fed, for example. Ever since my daughter’s acting conservatory closed two weeks ago, we’ve had six under our roof, which is double our usual number, including Greta, her actor boyfriend, and her dear friend who is also studying acting.

I was delighted to have them all here, refugees from the panic that has become New York City. I was delighted too, that I could cook for them, because that always makes me feel that I am caring for people. It gives me purpose, makes me feel that I’m literally making the people around me more happy and healthy by feeding them nutritious, homemade food.

The only problem is that I’ve never cooked for the Brady Bunch before, and I keep wondering where the heck Alice is. Between the fact that I make pretty much everything from scratch, and was doing all the dishes? Three meals a day? With no “Hey! Let’s go out tonight and give Mom a break!” in sight?

It has knocked me for a serious loop. I was going to bed exhausted, planning meals in my head, and waking up exhausted, planning meals in my head. Why, you may be wondering, didn’t I ask for help? I don’t know. Part of it is sheer stubbornness. Another part of it is probably my unconscious, deciding that it was better to be on the brink of exhaustion than to think about the scary things that are going on in the world right now.

Thank goodness, things on the Eve Exhaustion Front have now significantly improved. I finally started accepting help when it was offered (imagine that!) and even asking for it upon occasion. We set up a calendar of chores so everyone in the house is now contributing every day. And Greta’s friend made the decision to fly home to her parents, which made us sad to lose her company, but in sheer practical terms also meant one less mouth to feed.

That’s a phrase that strikes me as very old-fashioned: “one less mouth to feed.” It reminds me of stories about the Depression, and the Little Rascals short films that took place in orphanages (“Don’t drink the milk!” “Why?” “It’s spoiled!”). I think about the American Girl historical fiction movies with their young characters living through World Wars and the Depression and their fictional family members who died or disappeared and all anyone could do was bring you a casserole.

What does any of this have to do with No Garbage? In my mind it’s all connected. In fact, weirdly enough, all three of my family adventure-projects seems bound up together for me in living through this current crisis: sugar, clutter, waste. All of these themes have to do with how we live our lives, and- perhaps you’ve noticed?- currently how we live our lives has been thoroughly upended.

For example: my younger daughter, Ilsa, needed a quiet place to park her laptop and attend “school” every morning, and our under-used upstairs room seemed the obvious choice. But, truth be told, this “Hell Room” (the room I spent the entirety of my Year of No Clutter clearing out) has been backsliding into Hellishness for some time now. So I had some work to do.

Interestingly, I discovered some newfound decluttering energy, and Ilsa and I cleared a neat space for her with little trouble. I think it was easier than my past efforts because I had a practical problem to solve, quickly, and thinking practically changes me: it makes me not think quite as much about tomorrow and some future self, but about what we need now, today. I liked the change. So much so that I’ve continued to clean and organize the rest of the room since: if I can manage to clear it out still further it could also become another good space for other things… reading, relaxing, being. I was surprised to realize that all it took was actually needing the space, to make me more effective and efficient.

Meanwhile, in the kitchen we are running a tighter, more efficient ship as well. Yes, No Sugar taught me to cook things from scratch, and yes, No Clutter has been teaching me about planning and thinking ahead to avoid packaging. But this new normal has been bringing home cooking and planning in our house to a new level, and it’s pretty much all lunch’s fault.

Once upon a time, the midday meal in our house had been a “winging it” affair, an amalgam of leftovers, “just in case” foods (“Don’t we have a frozen burrito left in there somewhere?”) and school lunches. Now? Now we have meals. Planned ones. Only. Every day I make sure we have a hot, sit-down meal to feed five people three separate times. This is because social distancing makes our grocery shopping no longer casual- “oh I’ll pick up some milk on the way home”- but instead infrequent, targeted and specific. It is also because we are feeding more people, and therefore the only way I can be sure there’s actually enough food for everyone to eat. It’s a lot of work, for sure, and sometimes I get very overwhelmed, but it’s no different than our ancestors have done for centuries.

As it turns out— and I’m as surprised as anyone about this— living No Sugar, No Clutter and No Garbage all lead to the same place: being thoughtful and devoting the time. When people are nostalgic for the “good old days” they’re not pining for beef shortages and the Whooping Cough, I’m pretty sure what they’re captivated by, when it comes down to it, is the pace. Even the Little Rascals sat down for breakfast together. Being thoughtful about your space, your resources, your food, where the objects of our life come from and where they all go; devoting the time to put those ideals into practice… getting objects to people who will love and use them, recycling and reusing, cooking as much as possible from scratch. These all sound like old-fashioned ideals that many will tell you just aren’t possible in modern society, but all they require is being thoughtful and devoting time.

How do we want to live? What kind of people do we want to be? If we try to find a silver lining in this crisis it could be that it is forcing so many of us to stop running headlong through life, believing we don’t have time for things. Life is time. If we are alive we have time, and don’t let anyone tell you it isn’t up to you how to spend it. What we, as a culture, need to do is stop ceding control of that time, those decisions about how we spend it, to someone or something else- our culture, our job, our technology, our expectations, or someone else’s.

Right now my daughter Greta is downstairs baking bread for lunch today. She won’t use sugar, create clutter or make any garbage in the process. Today we’ve done the best we can do, and that’s good enough. I know I was born with a truly exceptional ability to worry about the future, and that’s what comes easily. The harder part is reminding myself instead that today is what we have and often- often- that’s pretty darned good. The harder part is reminding myself to just be grateful for a family lunch at our table, and a still-warm loaf of bread.


Homemade bread nourishes you twice: it’s relaxing to make it and delicious to eat it.

Here’s my favorite bread recipe, what Greta made today. If you make it let me know how it turns out!:

Oatmeal Sandwich Bread

  • 1 cup old fashioned oats
  • 3 cups boiling water
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp active dry yeast
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 1/2 cup barley malt syrup or brown rice syrup (in a pinch you can even use dark corn syrup, which is glucose not fructose)
  • 2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 5 cups all-purpose flour

In the bowl of a mixer, put a cup of oats. Pour boiling water over oats and let sit one hour.

At one hour, sprinkle the yeast, salt, and olive oil on top. Add the barley malt syrup and mix with dough hook. Stir in whole wheat flour. Stir in 2 cups of all-purpose flour. Then stir in 2 more cups of all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup at a time, mixing in between each addition.

Turn dough out onto a foured surface for kneading. Use the final cup of flour to add to dough whenever it gets sticky. Knead for five minutes, until dough has absorbed most of the final cup of flour and feels smooth. Place in a bowl and allow to rise for one hour.

Butter two loaf pans and heat oven to 350 degrees. After the hour has passed, turn dough onto counter, cut in half, and place each half in a bread pan. Allow to rise another 30 minutes.

Bake at 350 for 33 minutes. Remove bread from oven and allow to sit for five minutes before turning loaves out and letting cool on a rack.




Going Zero Waste for the Apocalypse

March 19, 2020 § 6 Comments

My family is living the entirety of 2020 without producing any garbage. We’re now three months in and I feel its only fair to report that I’m now having regular, fairly elaborate dreams about sorting recyclables. Which makes me kind of wonder about myself.

Nobody worried about staples except me and this chicken

Everyone I know is running around with their hair on fire, trying to figure out if they have enough toilet paper to survive the Coronapocalypse. Me? I’m washing tin foil and tying broken rubber bands back together. I’m sitting on the floor of my kitchen dutifully cutting open tea bags (the ones we didn’t realize were made of plastic until after using them- argh!) in order to liberate a teaspoon of tea from the horrible fate of being trapped in a little nylon pyramid FOREVER.

Also, I’m looking up whether staples are recyclable. Not paper with staples in it, mind you.

Just staples.

Although it’s entirely possible that all of these warning signs indicate that I’ll soon be talking to the aliens who live in my toaster oven, I’m actually glad to have something to spend my attention on 24/7 besides hand sanitizer and worrying. Because beyond a few basic things like washing up often and staying away from large gatherings, there’s not a whole lot most of us can do about the big, mysterious virus. On the other hand, there’s so much for me to learn and do when it comes to figuring out how to live No Garbage. At least with this preoccupation, I can actually do something.

But, as I think about it, I realize there’s more connection between our Year of No Garbage and the current global pandemic than that. I think the Corona virus comes to us with a message that we ignore at our own peril and it is this: we are all much closer than we think. Watching the news reports day by day, as reports of confirmed cases leapfrog from one country to another, I’ve been struck by the fact that all of these infected people are connected, each to the other: the trail of the virus is like a spider web that spirals ever-outward.

The virus knows something fundamental we often seem to forget: we are all connected. And much more closely than we might like to admit.

Which reminds me why garbage is such a colossally bad idea. I say idea, because I’ve decided that there really is no such thing as garbage. And just in case you think I’m talking to my toaster here, let me explain: When, for our first project back in 2011, our family gave up sugar for a year, sugar was an actual, definable thing we could see, taste, or read in a list of ingredients; it even has it’s own chemical formula. But what’s the chemical formula for garbage? There isn’t one, of course, because garbage could be anything, anywhere. It’s a random classification we apply to things when we feel we are done with them. But as we all know “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure,” which is to say, garbage is in the eye of the beholder.

“Garbage” isn’t so much a thing as an opinion. “Trash” isn’t so much a noun as it is a verb: “to discard, to throw away.”

And “throwing things away” is a human strategy that involves a willing suspension of disbelief that such a thing is possible on a planet that is round and finite. Because of course garbage doesn’t “go away,” it just goes somewhere else. This may be okay with you, unless you happen to live in the neighborhood of the landfill. Then again, at the rate we’re going the landfill will soon be in everybody’s neighborhood. Think I’m exaggerating? Have you heard lately about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch? Which is now twice the size of Texas? Have you heard about how they’re finding micro-plastics in everything from fish and shellfish to beer, bottled water, tap water and sea salt? Our garbage is everywhere, all around us, and we don’t even realize it.

It reminds me of that great old quote from the comic strip Pogo: “We have met the enemy, and he is us.” Cartoonist Walt Kelly knew that fifty years ago, but the rest of us can’t quite seem to come to grips with it. That would mean changing the way we do business, the way we live our lives, and, well, everything. And the suggestion of fundamental change freaks people out, a LOT. Even more than the Coronavirus maybe.

So here’s what I propose: henceforth, the question that every company who makes anything, ever, has to be able to answer is this: What happens to this, and its packaging, when the consumer is done with it? In the industry this is known as “end of life recycling.”

Why is that so important?

Because we’re all connected. As the Corona virus correctly points out the earth is smaller than we think. Maybe there are even fewer than seven degrees of Kevin Bacon after all. We humans, like it or not, are all in this together. Mutating pandemics and polymer particles in our rainwater have this in common: they don’t pay any attention to the walls that humans have built to make ourselves feel safe, whether they are figurative or literal. So when we talk about the merits of socialized medicine, as I have no doubt we will in the wake of this global panic, in the next breath we might consider another radical proposition: socialized garbage. We can take our linear consumption cycle and make it circular. Just like the world already is.


For my part, I’m just gonna keep right on trying to figure out where everything goes… the shattered Tupperware top, the broken pieces of a zipper I replaced, the empty tube of lipstick. Maybe the answers will come to me in one of my highly detailed recycling dreams. Just please don’t tell my husband about the two trunks in the hall that contain some 60 gallons of shredded paper which I haven’t quite figured out what to do with. I do think I’m gonna get some crap for that one.

Things I am wondering today:

March 14, 2020 § 2 Comments

  • At what point are they gonna cancel high school for Ilsa?
  • And for how long?
  • What does “anthropogenic” mean?
  • Like, it’s bad, right?
  • Do I have time to do my writing today AND drive forty minutes to buy milk in glass bottles?
  • I now have a houseful of kids- I mean, young adults– fleeing the craziness of NYC in the wake of Coronapocalyse.
  • Can I keep them all fed AND stay No Garbage?
  • On a related note, are Greta’s friends gonna think I’m as crazy as a soup sandwich?
  • Would they think that anyway?
  • Saran Wrap seems to be made of polyethylene.
  • Is it?
  • And if so, does that mean it’s recyclable at the supermarket?
  • Is there ANYTHING harder than trying to wash Saran Wrap?
  • Giving a chicken a manicure, maybe?
  • We are now out of toothpaste.
  • How, exactly, will my husband react when I present him with toothpaste homemade from baking soda?
  • Toothpaste can’t be grounds for divorce, can it?
  • On a related note, is Terracycle really all that?
  • But, like, really?
  • I probably have to stop hating hand sanitizer now, don’t I?
  • Damn.
  • Are the kids- I mean young adults– bored yet?
  • How about now?
  • Don’t we have a soccer ball around here somewhere?
  • Should I make another trip to the 45-minutes-away butcher to stock the freezer?
  • Or, perhaps go hide under the bed?
  • Is it wrong to try to be No Garbage when the world seems to be going to Hell in a handbasket?
  • Or, is it an excellent strategy to stay sane?

There’s a Crazy Lady in the Kitchen

March 7, 2020 § Leave a comment

Steve walked into the kitchen today as I sat in the middle of what most people would call a pile of garbage, and asked “What are you doing?”

“Playing.” I said.

“Oh, okay.” he said, walking back out again.

There was a pause before I called after him, “Do you think I’m crazy?”

“Oh, I know it.”

I love my husband.

Hiding it all under the bed suddenly seems like a very viable option.

Of course, I wasn’t sitting in a pile of garbage, because in our house garbage doesn’t exist. Instead I was sitting in the middle of a whole bunch of items we no longer want or need, and now have to figure out exactly what to do with.

Although I was having fun sorting all my non-treasure into piles, it had all started because I had gotten angry. Earlier that morning, in the back of a cabinet, I had come across some ancient, expired boxes of yogurt starter and what normally would have been a two-second flip over my shoulder into the garbage can turned into twenty minutes of me opening each individual foil packet and dumping the powder into our compost, all the while fuming that the foil packages were going to be The Next Problem. Because foil/paper packages are designed to be garbage and nothing else; there is no second life for expired packages of yogurt starter. As I sat there getting yogurt starter powder on my feet and all over the floor I imagined a conversation with the yogurt company that began with me yelling at the folks in the packaging science department.

EXACTLY WHAT are we supposed to do with these after they are used? What do you mean you don’t have a plan? These are just supposed to go sit in an airless, non-decomposing hole for the rest of ETERNITY- is that it? That’s your brilliant solution??

Ah, the poor yogurt starter people. After imagining yelling at them I felt kind of bad about it. Making yogurt starter is a noble profession, and one which enables people to use less packaging in other ways, since they’re making homemade yogurt and not buying those packages, after all.

It’s just that I can’t figure our why on earth the world wide packaging industry is allowed to make things that we have no plan for after their initial use is done. It’s like this giant invisible loophole in our produce-and-consume economy that no one wants to talk about.

And as I wondered about this I was inspired to proceed to the recycling corner of my kitchen and angrily dump out onto the floor the three successive containers of “I don’t know” that I’ve accumulated over the past ten weeks. Surveying the devastation, certain key themes emerged, but one reigned supreme.

Multilayers. By this I mean extruded combinations of paper, foil and/or plastic. Multilayers are almost always pure, unadulterated landfill fodder and have now arisen as the bane of my existence. Frozen food packaging, plasticized produce tags, pull-off seals, stickers, tickets and receipts are among the items that show up repeatedly in my big pile. All of them are multilayers.

It’s hard not to look at this depressing pile and think of the zero-wasters online explaining how all their garbage for the year fits into a thimble. I remind myself for the frillionth time that we’re learning as we go. I make a resolution to attend the farmers market more, so to avoid things like vegetable tags and frozen food wrappers. I vow to redouble my efforts on the “No receipt please!” front, without actually screaming at anyone, although it is difficult when so many places don’t ask if you want a receipt- they just hand it to you. I know it sounds odd, but sometimes I just don’t have the heart to tell them I don’t want it. I need to get better about that.

Lastly, I ‘m tempted to call the information hotline for these multilayer-wrapped products and ask whoever answers the phone, What do I do with this?

I’m pretty sure the response I’d get is a confused, What do you mean? Throw it away!

Then I’d go back to my yogurt-starter-tirade and tell them:

Don’t you know there is no such thing as “away”?

The Mysterious Milkman and Aseptic Cartons

February 28, 2020 § 2 Comments

I can still recall the milk box we had when I was a kid. A cube-shaped metal container sat outside our front door and would fill with fresh, new glass bottles of milk once a week. I never saw the milkman, so it seemed rather like a magic trick: put empty bottles in and- poof– new milk appears! Whenever my parents got home from work, they’d bring them inside.

Our old milk box looked just like this one and now I feel very old.

It kind of boggles my mind now. At the time no one seemed particularly worried about the milk spoiling out there in the non-insulated box… or freezing… or that someone would tamper with the milk. The bottles each had a little round foil cap that peeled off the top when you wanted to open a new one, and it never sealed perfectly again once opened, but no one seemed too concerned about that either.

I know this makes me sound like perhaps I grew up sometime just before the invention of the icebox but this was the seventies, people.

Fast forward to my No Garbage project of today and here I am again thinking about milk. The pile of HELP WHAT DO I DO WITH THIS in my kitchen is ever-so gradually getting smaller, but the empty containers for milk are comparatively large and stacking up, effectively presenting themselves as the next urgent question to answer.

Before this project began I used to recycle milk cartons, thinking: paper. But soon after beginning the project I thought: Wait. Paper coated with plastic. If I have learned anything in the first two months of the Year of No Garbage, it’s that Frankenstein combinations of materials- such as paper and plastic squashed together by heat, say- are inherently evil, unrecyclable landfill fodder, probably invented by Satan.

I hear the cartons are meeting in secret at night behind the blender. I don’t like it.

But I realized that when it came to cartons I just really didn’t know. In search of answers online, I came upon the Carton Council, an industry organization that promotes carton recycling. Oh, hooray!! I thought. On their site you can input your zip code and it will instantly tell you whether recycling that includes cartons is available in your area. Now, when you live in Vermont NOTHING is ever available in your area, so I was sad, but not terribly surprised, to see that mine did not.

Fear not! the Carton Council website assured me, because you can mail your cartons in for recycling. To places like Virginia and Nebraska. It’s free except for postage, and, after all, this is not super-heavy material we’re talking about.

Okay, at least there’s something I can do, I thought. I didn’t love it, first because any additional level of complexity or cost is going to make it that much less likely for the average person to actually do it, and second because the environmental footprint of mailing boxes of cartons across the country to recycle them raises serious questions about the net impact of the whole endeavor. Aren’t we defeating the purpose a bit here?

The Carton Council’s list of places you can mail your cartons to currently.

Then I just happened to take a closer look at my garbage service “recyclable” list. Waitaminute! Contrary to what the all-knowing Carton Council website had indicated, milk cartons are on the list! This was excellent news.

But what about other cartons? The Carton Council’s mail-in locations also accept lots of other cartons, i.e. the boxes that hold shelf-stable things like juice boxes, soup and chicken broth. These items are labeled “Tetra Paks.” I don’t encounter them often, because we don’t drink juice and I usually make my own broth from leftover chicken bones and freeze it, but now that I’m having trouble buying whole chickens without plastic, my broth supply has dwindled to nothing.

Perhaps I could solve this problem, I thought, by buying Tetra Paks of broth for soups and sauces? Maybe those would be the only things I’d have to mail to Denver or Omaha.

But then I noticed something else intriguing on the list for curbside recycling: they also accepted something called aseptic cartons. What was that? The lady who answers the phone for my garbage service had no idea. Back to the Internet.

AHA! It turns out there are two kinds of cartons: refrigerated “gable top” (like the kind milk comes in) and shelf stable “aseptic ” (like the kind chicken broth comes in.) Both are combinations of polyethylene and paper, but aseptic includes a layer of aluminum as well. And aseptic is the generic name for Tetra Pak, which is a brand name. They’re the same thing.

The good news is that both of these kinds of cartons, unlike other paper/plastic amalgams— such as thermal receipts—can be separated back into their components for recycling.

The bad news is that this process still requires a fair amount of energy and effort, such as trucking giant bales of the cartons hundred of miles for elaborate processing. Although it keeps these materials out of the landfill, this still seems to defeat the purpose of being sustainable and earth friendly.

Hmm. So I can put my cartons, both gable top and aseptic/Tetra Pak, in the curbside recycling, and putting them in recycling is better than not putting them in recycling. But better still would be to find alternatives. For milk, I’m looking into a local dairy that has returnable glass bottles just like those of my youth. For chicken broth, my local butcher tells me if I call him ahead of time I can purchase chicken carcasses he’s butchered for parts, and bring it home in my own container no less. Promising leads, for sure.

I do miss the mysterious ways of the Dellwood milkman, though. He made it all seem so effortless.

Beads, Beads, Beads

February 25, 2020 § 1 Comment

It’s Fat Tuesday- Happy Mardi Gras everyone! Imagine I am throwing you some invisible, purple, green and gold necklaces to wear all day long in celebration. Very sustainable. Heck, while we’re at it, have an invisible slice of King Cake on me.

Mardi Gras makes you do weird things

For many years my mom and her boyfriend have made New Orleans their home, so I’ve been lucky enough to experience the culture of Mardi Gras, which is so much more than the old stereotype of drinking and bad behavior. In my family we focus on the family-friendly parades, which go on intermittently for weeks before culminating in Fat Tuesday, an extravaganza which literally shuts the whole town down in celebration.

Although I’ve been to many Mardi Gras parades, which I love, there’s one aspect I’ve never quite been able to get past, something which is both incredibly apparent and kind of invisible at the same time: the colossal amount of garbage involved. If you’ve never been you wouldn’t necessarily know it, but the parades are pretty much Woodsy the Owl’s worst nightmare. This is because practically every parade throws plastic bead necklaces from practically every one of its thirty-or-so gigantic floats. If they aren’t throwing beads they’re throwing stuffed animals, beer cozies, t-shirts, coins called “doubloons,” plastic swords, rubber balls, tutus, confetti, cheap sunglasses… you get the idea. In fact, you seriously need to be paying attention because it’s literally raining stuff when some of these floats go by. When she was about eight years old my daughter Greta got seriously clocked in the head by a rather heavy, glitter-coated high-heeled shoe. (Which she treasures, by the way. A “Muses shoe” is a very prized throw.)


After a parade has finished you can just imagine the devastation: blocks and blocks of discarded beads, squashed throws, and all the plastic baggies this stuff comes in clogging the gutters along with bottles and other trash. Some parades leave a layer of spewed confetti decorating the streets while others have tossed rolls of toilet paper festively into the trees. Now multiply that by fifty, the approximate total number of Mardi Gras parades, and you’ll have some idea of the herculean amount of garbage we’re talking about.

But the garbage never sticks around for very long. The reason I say it’s kind of invisible is that New Orleans has been doing this a loooong time, and if they know how to do anything really well, it’s how to clean up a parade mess, fast. I’ve seen a parade route go from disaster to you’d-never-know-it-happened in the span of few hours. That’s how good they are. You might even forget all that garbage was ever generated at all.

But there are other signs. People joke that New Orleans is sinking, not because of global warming, but from the weight of all those beads. This is less of an exaggeration than you might think: following street floods in 2018 the City of New Orleans removed 46 tons of Mardi Gras beads from a five block stretch.

Five blocks. 46 tons.

Turns out beads make terrible fertilizer.

Of course, that’s only a small percentage of the outlay. The vast majority of beads and throws don’t end up in the gutters because people want them: Throw me something, Mister! is the famous refrain. Every parade is in some sense a contest to see who can get the most stuff, the weirder the better and the more you can wear on your body all at once, better still. After all that jumping and screaming and triumphant catching people can get unreasonably attached to these bizarre treasures. Remind me not to tell you how many suitcases I inexplicably stuffed with pounds of parade beads and cheap stuffed animals to bring home to Vermont and keep forever because… I caught them? That makes sense, right?

I blame everything on Bead Fever.

But here’s the question: what do you do once Bead Fever has subsided? When you come to your senses and realize that you might not really want to hand down to your grandchildren seventeen pounds of plastic beads and a miniature plastic toilet that squirts water when you open the seat? The good news is that on my trip to New Orleans last week I discovered that there is a non-profit organization that is recycling Mardi Gras, plastic toilets and all. AND providing employment to intellectually or developmentally disabled people. AND using the profits thereby generated to provide other programs and support for the intellectually or developmentally disabled.

Vanna White envies me.

It’s called ArcGNO (GNO stands for Greater New Orleans) and their slogan is “We Turn Beads Into Jobs!” They’ve been collecting, sorting, and reselling Mardi Gras beads for over thirty years, but I’d never heard of them till now. That’s because they’ve been recently expanding their operation by leaps and bounds: new attention to issues of sustainability has caused many prominent parade krewes (the clubs that throw the parades) to buy recycled beads from ArcGNO. Huge metal collecting bins are placed throughout the city for receiving bead donations, and people are using them: three years ago ArcGNO had 20 tons of beads donated. Last year that figure was over nine times that amount, 186 tons.

I got to visit the bead-sorting operation and store in Metairie, and was floored. I honestly found it quite moving to see so much good happening all at once. People welcomed us to watch the bead sorting, view the gigantic bead mural, and talk about other things they offer to krewes such as sustainably sourced and non-disposable throws (paper beads, colored pencils, bags of coffee). And of course if you see some especially nice beads or a plastic tiara you can’t live without everything is for sale.

In addition to the large volume of local donations, bead recycling center manager Toni Wright told me told me that ArcGNO also regularly receives mailed-in beads from all over the country.

“They don’t have to do that!” she laughed, “They could just send us a check!”

The bead sorting room at ArcGNO feels a bit like the Wonka Factory to me

I understood her point— why spend $20 to mail a boxful of plastic when you could just send them the $20?— but I also understood the impulse to return the beads to their native habitat. Mardi Gras beads never make as much sense anywhere else as they do in New Orleans. And if not back home where else can this stuff go? (I mean, besides the landfill. You know how I feel about the landfill.)

So if you’re like me and you happen to have a whole bunch of old Mardi Gras beads hanging around in your attic you can mail them in to ArcGNO and rest assured those beads will live to be flung another day (ditto any other Mardi Gras swag: cheap cups, toys, stuffed animals etc.). Or, to tread even more lightly, maybe your local elementary school would like those beads and trinkets for an art project, or as prizes for meeting reading goals, say. Either way you’re letting these objects continue their mission of spreading some festivity in the world.

Celebrations— Mardi Gras or otherwise— can be tough to reconcile with sustainability. By definition, everyone is there to have a good time, right? Don’t be such a bummer worrying about the environment, man. We may never be able to make our celebrations completely green, but we can surely feel good by doing more with what we already have.

After all, there’s more than one way to skin a Fat Tuesday.

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