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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.