It’s Mardi Gras season in New Orleans! The Passion Lilie team is indulging in all the king cakes we can get our hands on as we prepare for the big weekends of carnival ahead. The music, the parades, and the pervading sense of joy and revelry make for a season we look forward to all year long. As a sustainable business, however, we start to get a little twitchy when we think about the environmental impacts of Mardi Gras. From plastic waste to energy consumption, Mardi Gras can leave a significant footprint. In this post, we'll explore the environmental impact of Mardi Gras and offer tips on how to have a more sustainable carnival season.
The Plastic Problem
In 2023, New Orleans sent 1,150 tons of waste to the landfill in 11 days of Mardi Gras festivities. Much of the nearly 2.6 million pounds of waste included unwanted parade throws, cans, and plastic bottles that could be recycled. Unfortunately, the city lacks the tools and infrastructure to encourage proper disposal of these items, and they end up littering streets, clogging storm drains, and leaking chemicals, paints, and microplastics into our waterways. “Mardi Gras trees” stand weighted down by toxic beads year-round from the carnival season, and we subject our children to chemicals and heavy metals when they catch and carry their airborne treasures. Each year, The City of New Orleans spends millions cleaning beads from storm drains on the parade route. As anyone who has been to New Orleans can attest, those resources are vital and could serve any number of critical needs in our city.
The tradition of throwing beads started with a Mardi Gras organization called Rex. They threw Czechoslovakian glass beads, eventually transitioning to the plastic ones we see today. Today’s beads come from China, made from crushed computers and electronics the US sends for disposal. They’re manufactured into beads, coated in toxic paint, and sent back to the US in shiploads.
A recent study found that these beads contain chemicals like flame retardant and lead in higher levels than are legally safe for children. These toxins are linked to asthma, birth defects, learning disabilities, reproductive problems, liver toxicity, and cancer. Yet here we are, encouraging children to catch and celebrate these dangerous throws. When they eventually end up in the landfill, they take centuries to break down. In the meantime, toxins seep into our soil and water, entering our food chain and negatively impacting our health.
New Orleans is the city best known for Mardi Gras, but carnival season is celebrated along the Gulf Coast from Florida to Texas. Toxic beads enter storm drains, flow through waterways, and settle in the Mississippi Delta and the Gulf. The Mardi Gras plastic problem is undeniable, and it’s time to start doing something about it.
It’s not just the beads…
Several factors add to the impact of parade throws, including gigantic floats, costumes, and parade day litter. The carbon footprint of Mardi Gras is enormous when you consider transportation, lighting, and floats made from non-sustainable materials. Revelers leave cans, cups, and food trash along every inch of the parade route due to a lack of proper receptacles and an overall culture of litter. The very elements that make Mardi Gras so magical require significant energy and contribute to carbon emissions and pollution. We believe it’s possible to make Mardi Gras a greener celebration, but it will take awareness and a shift in carnival culture. Here are our ideas for a more sustainable Mardi Gras celebration.
A Purple, Yellow, and Green Celebration
Recent years have seen a growing awareness of the waste Mardi Gras season produces. Many Krewes and riders are exploring sustainable options for throws and decorations. Several local organizations have developed biodegradable beads and sustainable throws like jute bags with local coffee, red beans, and popcorn. These throws are more expensive, of course, because makers are paid fairly and materials are high quality. Grounds Krewe is a New Orleans non-profit that offers sustainable, non-toxic, and fairly made throws. Their catalog includes soap, honey sticks, bamboo toothbrush sets, biodegradable glitter, and so much more. Epiphany Throws, another local organization, offers beads made from acai seeds, recycled cotton, and recycled flip-flops. With these options available, Krewe members can budget their throws, using fewer, high-quality pieces in place of cheap and destructive ones. Revenue from these products benefits local organizations and makers, uplifting our economy and helping people in our area.
Every year, hundreds of giant floats roll through the streets of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. They’re largely made from non-renewable resources that end up as waste. Instead of traditional materials, Mardi Gras organizations could use recycled materials like repurposed wood, cardboard, or reclaimed metal for float construction. Not only does this reduce the demand for new resources, but it also gives new life to materials that might otherwise end up in landfills. Many Krewes use plastic for their float decorations, but natural materials like paper, cloth, and plant-based dyes can add a festive touch to floats without harming the environment.
Lighting is a major part of parades and float design. Several lighting swaps could make floats more energy-efficient without compromising the dazzling display. LED lights consume less energy and have a longer lifespan than traditional incandescent bulbs, reducing both electricity usage and waste. Float makers might also embrace solar power by incorporating solar-powered lighting into their float design. Solar panels can harness the sun's energy during the day, providing illumination for floats without relying on grid electricity.
On an individual level, there are a few things we can do to help have a greener Mardi Gras. Grounds Krewe’s best advice for parade goers is to adopt a camping mentality of “pack it in, pack it out.” Whatever food or trash you bring to the parade, be sure to take it home and dispose of it properly there. Individual responsibility for our waste is a much better strategy than relying on the city for cleanup.
As for beads, if you do catch the chemical-ridden plastic ones, be sure not to allow children to put them in their mouths. We recommend carrying baby wipes to the parade to wipe down beads and wash hands after touching the throws. Many organizations offer bead recycling programs when Mardi Gras season is over. While this is not an ideal situation because the toxic beads remain in circulation, it is a better alternative to being dumped in a landfill. The Arc of Greater New Orleans is a non-profit that employs people with intellectual disabilities to recycle and resell Mardi Gras beads throughout the year. The organization offers several drop-off locations for bead donations around the city.
Another small but significant choice is to reduce your carbon footprint by opting to carpool or use public transportation to get to the parades. With so many people traveling to Mardi Gras, even little decisions like these can have a large cumulative impact.
Do you have ideas for how to have a greener Mardi Gras season? We’d love to hear them in the comments. In the meantime, have some king cake and laissez les bon temps rouler!