Mardi Gras, When the Party's Over
Today New Orleans celebrates Mardi Gras with fabulous parades, flamboyantly costumed partiers (as well as some not very costumed partiers), and, of course, those ubiquitous beads. The plastic strands are tossed into the crowd from passing floats, a tradition dating back to the 1920s. Each float rider throws about $1,000 worth of the stuff.
The traditional colors of purple, gold, and green symbolize justice, power, and faith. Lofty notions, but after the party’s over, the throwaway necklaces add to the enormous bulk of trash generated by the festival (the French Quarter alone produces enough to fill three Olympic-size swimming pools).
Fortunately, significant efforts are underway to make sure the colorful trinkets don’t end up decorating landfills. For the past several years, the Sierra Club’s Delta Chapter has partnered with Arc of Greater New Orleans, an organization that serves people with mental disabilities, to collect donated Mardi Gras beads. Arc repackages them into 30-pound bags which they sell to raise money. Last year they collected about 50 tons by organizing school drives and placing bins in grocery stores. The practice is now spreading to Baton Rouge and other cities.
Also giving new life to used Mardi Gras beads is Up/Unique Products, an art studio in New Orleans. Artists there re-fuse the baubles into Mardi Lights and other light fixtures that bring a little of that Mardi Gras magic into the home.