Is a Plastic-Free Mardi Gras Possible?
A growing number of locals are calling for a greener Mardi Gras, but weaning ourselves from cheap plastic won’t be easy.
Nathan Simpson looked at home amid the chaotic swirl of costumed revelers at the recent krewedelusion parade lineup, sporting a blue bodysuit and peering through glowing red lenses at the crowd. Tonight he was Recyclops, and he had a mission: to collect all the aluminum cans and plastic bottles he could get his hands on.
Simpson is one of about 20 members of the Trashformers, Mardi Gras’ first recycling-themed marching krewe. While recycling is the focus, the group, founded in 2019 by local architect Brett Davis, hopes to spark a broader conversation about Mardi Gras waste, including the plastic beads and throws now synonymous with the season.
Members dress in eco-pun costumes (Simpson’s Recyclops, inspired by Marvel X-Men superhero Cyclops, was joined by a Pacific Garbage Patch Kid and Oscar the Recycling Grouch), and deploy a fleet of lime-green shopping carts to collect cans and bottles directly from parade-goers.
Simpson, a New Orleans native, said he joined Trashformers to show that we can be responsible without killing the Mardi Gras fun. He grew up going to parades and loves Carnival krewes and balls, but the waste is a problem, he said.
It’s not about changing Mardi Gras, Simpson said, “it’s about changing the culture of how we experience Mardi Gras.”
Simpson isn’t alone. As New Orleans faces a host of ecological threats — climate change, sinking land and flooding to name a few — a growing number of locals are calling for an environmental reboot of the city’s Carnival experience, and a break from the throw-away culture and cheap plastic beads and trinkets ubiquitous at parades.
This year, several large krewes, including Rex and Bacchus, have publicized efforts to cut back on the amount of plastic members throw. Arc of Greater New Orleans, which sorts and re-sells beads, employing adults with disabilities in the process, reports donations more than tripled to 190 tons ahead of Mardi Gras 2020. Even the City Council weighed in, approving a new ordinance that bans riders from throwing the plastic bags that beads are packaged in.
Is a greener, plastic-free Mardi Gras possible? Sustainability advocates are optimistic, though they acknowledge it will require a major cultural shift. The answer is more complicated for krewes and riders.
“It’s about changing the culture of how we experience Mardi Gras.”
Cheap plastic trinkets underpin the economics of the season, allowing krewes to attract riders and generate revenue. Wholesalers make millions of dollars on the roughly 25 million pounds of beads imported from China every year, and parade-goers have come to expect a deluge of loot on the route.
Mardi Gras parades in New Orleans are big and bountiful, and that generates a lot of money for the city and local businesses, said Dan Kelly, president of the Krewe of Endymion, whose 3,200 riders each toss 500 pounds of throws on average. Kelly also owns Beads by the Dozen, a wholesaler that imports roughly 5 million pounds of throws each year.
“If you make it too expensive for people to throw these greatest shows on Earth for free, New Orleans is going to dry up,” Kelly said. “It’s not going to be the city that we’re known for.”
At the same time, the cost of cleaning up after parades is rising and taxpayers are footing the bill. The City of New Orleans spent $1.5 million to collect 2.6 million pounds of trash during the two-week height of Mardi Gras season in 2018, according to city records. That was a 60% jump in spending from 2008.
That price doesn’t factor in the toll Chinese-made plastic throws take on our health and infrastructure, said Dana Eness, executive director of The Urban Conservancy. Researchers have found unsafe levels of lead and a range of other toxins in imported beads, which can remain in trees, yards and sewers well after parades. In 2018, city contractors pulled 93,000 pounds of beads from clogged catch basins along the St. Charles Avenue parade route. The headline shocked locals and got national attention.
“The reality is there’s a huge cost that New Orleanians bear, but tourists do not, in terms of wear and tear on the infrastructure, clogged drains, flooding. Things we’re paying for in all sorts of ways,” Eness said. Read the full article here.
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