Recyclable beads would help mitigate Mardi Gras’ environmental damage. photo: Cathy Hughes, all rights reserved

“Honey, don’t bother,” the older woman beside me said as I tidied up my bit of St. Charles Avenue turf after my first Carnival parade.

Her hand swept downriver toward Canal Street, encompassing miles of plastic cups, food wrappers and shattered Mardi Gras beads left in the krewe’s wake. The Sav-A-Center bag I was stuffing with snack packets and empty beer cans was laughably irrelevant to the task of a post-parade cleanup.

Carnival, by definition, is a season of excess, of glutting the senses in anticipation of the asceticism of Lent. But this rich tradition does not necessarily demand expression in ways detrimental to the civic good.

The Greening Mardi Gras conference scheduled for Tuesday evening will be a forum for discussion of ways to wallow in the delights of New Orleans in sustainable ways, reducing pollution and plastic imports while supporting the local artists and producers who are creating alternative throws. These homegrown artifacts are not just gentler on the environment, they’re a potentially fresh market for talented and entrepreneurial New Orleanians.

In all, about 25 million pounds of Mardi Gras beads are shipped to New Orleans each year, During the run-up to Carnival 2012, Beads by the Dozen owner Dan Kelly said his company would be importing about 8 million pounds of plastic beads, of which about 60 percent, or 4.8 million pounds, are thrown during the Carnival season.

Kelly estimated that each member of the Krewe of Endymion throws about 1,800 strands of beads, for a total of about 7 million. Collectively, the 3,500 members of the Bacchus, Endymion and Orpheus super-krewes toss more than 2 million cups, 3.5 million doubloons and 350,000 gross of beads.

Mardi Gras traditions have evolved dramatically over the years. James R. Creecy in his book Scenes in the South, and Other Miscellaneous Pieces describes New Orleans Mardi Gras in 1835:

Shrove Tuesday is a day to be remembered by strangers in New Orleans, for that is the day for fun, frolic, and comic masquerading. All of the mischief of the city is alive and wide awake in active operation. Men and boys, women and girls, bond and free, white and black, yellow and brown, exert themselves to invent and appear in grotesque, quizzical, diabolic, horrible, strange masks, and disguises. Human bodies are seen with heads of beasts and birds, beasts and birds with human heads; demi-beasts, demi-fishes, snakes’ heads and bodies with arms of apes; man-bats from the moon; mermaids; satyrs, beggars, monks, and robbers parade and march on foot, on horseback, in wagons, carts, coaches, cars, &c., in rich confusion, up and down the streets, wildly shouting, singing, laughing, drumming, fiddling, fifeing, and all throwing flour broadcast as they wend their reckless way.

The reference to flour may harken back to pagan rituals celebrating the end of winter, in which peasants threw milled grain into fields as an offering of gratitude to deities for helping them survive the cold season.

Gift throws have been part of the parade scene since at least 1871, when a masker costumed as Santa Claus aboard float No. 24 in the Twelfth Night Revelers parade tossed presents to the crowd. The trinkets that were thrown varied widely until 1921, when every member of the Rex procession threw multi-colored strings of glass beads made in Czechoslovakia, which remained the most popular throws for decades, despite hand injuries for those who grabbed strands with broken beads. In the 1960s, the glass beads were supplanted by less expensive and more durable plastic beads, first from Hong Kong, then from Taiwan, and more recently from China.

Throwing cascades of imported plastic beads is a problem because of their content, source and quantity.

The beads are made of polyethylene and no. 6 polystyrene, which contains hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs), a chemical shown in some studies to cause cancer and other life-threatening diseases. Traditional U.S. recycling centers cannot process the beads. HCFCs that degrade and seep into the earth can kill off plants and pollute groundwater.

The poor working conditions in one of the Chinese factories where the plastics are transformed into beads are illustrated in Mardi Gras: Made in China, a 2006 documentary by David Redmon. Shipping the tons of beads from China to the United States takes a further environmental toll.

Finally, the sheer quantity of imported plastic beads that are thrown further decreases their value, in a simple illustration of the law of supply and demand. Increasingly, parade-goers spurn beads without special medallions.

The organizers of Greening Mardi Gras are creating a marketplace for alternative throws that will reduce the use of toxic materials and fuel, provide opportunities for domestic artists and producers, and enhance the parade-going experience for revelers who will go home with a true Louisiana keepsake.

In 2004, Fred Berger of Mardi Gras Imports in Slidell estimated that individual krewe members spent $800 on throws on average, with expenditures of $2,000 or $2,500 not unheard-of. Diverting even a fraction of that money to locally made throws would significantly increase the civic value of New Orleans’ Mardi Gras celebration.

The Greening Mardi Gras conference will be held Tuesday at 5:30 p.m.. at Cafe Istanbul, in the Healing Center at 2372 St. Claude Ave. For more information, contact Katrina Brees at or 504-905-2830.

New Orleans journalist Cathy Hughes is a Greening Mardi Gras volunteer.