NEW ORLEANS — It’s a beloved century-old Carnival tradition in New Orleans: Masked riders on lavish floats toss strings of colorful beads or other trinkets to parade spectators who shout with outstretched arms.
It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also a bit of a “plastic disaster,” says Judith Enck, a former regional administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency and president of the advocacy group Beyond Plastics.
Carnival season is in full swing this weekend. The city’s annual series of parades began more than a week ago and will conclude on Tuesday – Mardi Gras – a final day of revelry before Lent. Thousands of people attend parades and leave behind a pile of trash.
Despite a massive daily cleanup operation that leaves the post-parade landscape remarkably clean, uncaught pearls hang from tree branches like Spanish moss and sink into the mud beneath the feet of passers-by. They also bring storms, where they only complicate efforts to keep flood-prone city streets dry. Tons have been removed from the aging drainage system in recent years.
And those that aren’t removed from the storm drains end up being washed into the system and into Lake Pontchartrain — the large Gulf of Mexico cove north of the city. Non-biodegradable plastics pose a threat to fish and wildlife, Enck said.
“Waste becomes a defining characteristic of this event,” said Brett Davis, a New Orleans native who grew up catching beads in Mardi Gras parades. He now runs a nonprofit organization that works to reduce waste.
One way to reduce the demand for new plastic beads is to reuse old ones. Parade participants who carry home bags of freshly caught pearls, foam footballs, rubber balls and a host of other freshly tossed goodies can donate their harvest to the Arch of New Orleans . The organization repackages and resells products to raise money for the services it provides to adults and children with disabilities.
The city of New Orleans and tourism promotion organization New Orleans & Co. also have collection points along the parade routes for cans, glass and, of course, beads.
Aside from recycling, there is a small but growing movement to find something else for parade riders to throw.
Grounds Krewe, Davis’ nonprofit, now sells more than two dozen types of non-plastic, durable items that parade riders can display. Among them: headbands made from recycled T-shirts; beads made from paper, acai seeds or recycled glass; wooden yoyos; and packages of locally made coffee, jambalaya mix, or other food items — useful, consumable items that won’t take up space in someone’s attic or, worse, end up in the lake.
“I just caught 15 foam footballs in a parade,” Davis joked. “What am I going to do with another one?”
Plastic imports remain pervasive, but efforts to mitigate their damage could have an impact.
“These efforts will help green up Mardi Gras,” Christy Leavitt, of the Oceana Group, said in an email.
Enck, who visited New Orleans last year and attended Mardi Gras celebrations, hopes parade organizers embrace biodegradable alternatives.
“There are great ways to have fun around this wonderful festival,” she said. “But you can have fun without harming the environment.”
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