New Orleans trees are among the most unique in the world. Unrelated to their species or their age, what sets them apart are the hanging strands of plastic beads, kaleidoscopic through the branches. They shimmer for a time, showing off their many colors, before turning muted, dull from sun rays and rainy days.
Something of an inanimate invasive species, the plastic bead necklaces of modern Carnival have steadily made a home for themselves not only in trees and landfills but also nestled rather compactly in city storm drains.
When local news broke in 2018 that the City had dredged almost 100,000 pounds of Mardi Gras beads from storm drains along just five city blocks, it seemed a tipping point. Especially after record street flooding and the increasing awareness that contaminants from these beads, including trace amounts of lead, can leach into the soil and water, it has become increasingly clear that a greater awareness of Mardi Gras’ environmental impacts is vital in order to sustain the tradition in the long term.
However oxymoronic (and controversial) sustainable Mardi Gras may sound, New Orleans Mardi Gras did not always include such heavy-handed trinket throwing. Though the distribution of small gifts had existed in a minimal capacity in New Orleans parades since the 1870s, the Rex Organization, which parades on Mardi Gras Day, dramatically expanded this practice in the early 1900s with each individual float tossing items to eager onlookers.
Through the 1960s, parade riders enticed crowds with glass beads from Japan and what was then Czechoslovakia. Then the transition to plastic beads ensued, and the amount of throws continued to increase exponentially.
As for modern day Carnival, beads are easy to catch, proliferous, and are part of how the rest of the world imagines New Orleans Mardi Gras. They are a prop for the obligatory Mardi Gras selfie. But, in many cases, the beads are abandoned at parades end, left behind for the long trek from the parade route to a parked vehicle or to a hotel. And this is where we can all, collectively, step in.
Recycle your Mardi Gras beads
According to statistics from the City of New Orleans and the Young Leadership Council’s Mardi Gras Recycling Initiative team, which provided recycling during the Krewe du Vieux and Cleopatra parades earlier this month, Carnival season generates approximately 1.8 million pounds of waste that ultimately goes to the landfill. While this number is staggering, Mardi Gras bead recycling, an exercise in reducing and reusing in addition to recycling, is on the rise.
Parade route recycling
Recycling on the parade routes is available throughout Carnival season, including the final Sunday of parades (Feb. 23) after the Thoth parade. Grounds Krewe volunteers wearing neon vests will be collecting beads (as well as cans and plastics #1 and #2) for recycling along the St. Charles Avenue parade route between Magazine Street to Jackson Avenue. Beads will be donated to the Arc of Greater New Orleans (ArcGNO).
Donate Your Beads
St. Michael School provides education for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities from the age of six to adulthood. The school’s Joy Activity Center accepts Mardi Gras bead donations and provides work opportunities for the school’s graduates prior to reselling the sorted beads. Drop off beads at 1522 Chippewa Street.
The Arc of Greater New Orleans (ArcGNO) has been at the forefront of this effort, recycling beads for more than 30 years. Arc’s Recycling Center employs people with developmental disabilities and delays who sort and package donated beads before later reselling them to parade riders for the next year’s ride. In 2019, the organization, with support from its community partners, collected more than 173 tons of throws (including plush and other trinkets, in addition to beads).
ArcGNO has partnered with several dozen local businesses and organizations to coordinate recycling drop-offs during Carnival season as well as year round. A full list of recycling bins citywide can be found on their website. Recycling bins in New Orleans are listed below.
Mardi Gras bead recycling has the potential to have far-reaching impacts, from keeping city streets cleaner, reducing contaminants in the soil and water, and lessening the impact to the old drainage system. It can go a long way toward helping fund local nonprofits in the short term and changing Mardi Gras culture, for the better, in the long term.
ArcGNO Recycling Bins (New Orleans)
During Carnival Season
- Algiers Regional Library – 3014 Holiday Drive
- Aloft New Orleans Downtown – 225 Baronne Street
- Alvar Library – 913 Alvar Street
- Audubon Aquarium – 1 Canal Street
- Audubon Nature Center – 11000 Lake Forest Boulevard
- Audubon Insectarium – 423 Canal Street
- Audubon Zoo – 6500 Magazine Street
- Avenue Plaza – 2111 St. Charles Avenue
- Avenue Pub – 1732 St. Charles Avenue
- Best Western Plus St. Charles Inn – 3636 St. Charles Avenue
- Children’s Resource Center – 913 Napoleon Avenue
- Cita Dennis Hubbell Branch Library – 725 Pelican Avenue
- City Hall – 1300 Perdido Street
- Dirty Coast – 5631 Magazine Street
- Drury Inn & Suites New Orleans – 820 Poydras Street
- East New Orleans Regional Library – 5641 Read Boulevard
- Gallier Hall – 545 St. Charles Avenue
- Gulf Coast Bank & Trust Company – 201 N. Carrollton Avenue
- Gulf Coast Bank & Trust Company – 848 Harrison Avenue
- HI New Orleans Hostel – 1028 Canal Street
- Hilton New Orleans Riverside – 2 Poydras Street
- Jefferson Financial Express Federal Credit Union – 1201 Jefferson Highway Suite D
- Latter Branch Public Library – 5120 St. Charles Avenue
- Maison De Cheveux – 201 St. Charles Avenue #127
- New Orleans & Company – 2020 St. Charles Avenue
- Nest Nola – 5422 Magazine Street
- NOPSI Hotel – 317 Baronne Street
- Omni Riverfront Hotel – 701 Convention Center Boulevard
- Reginelli’s Pizzeria – 5961 Magazine Street
- Rock ‘N’ Bowl – 3016 S. Carrollton Avenue
- Robert E. Smith Library – 6301 Canal Boulevard
- Renaissance New Orleans Arts Warehouse District Hotel – 700 Tchoupitoulas Street
- Rosa F. Keller Library & Community Center – 4300 S. Broad Avenue
- Rouses Market – 701 Baronne Street
- Sheraton Hotel – 500 Canal Street
- Tulane University – 1515 Poydras Street #964
- Urban South Brewery – 1645 Tchoupitoulas Street
- Windsor Court Hotel – 300 Gravier Street