‘Trashforming’ Carnival from a mountain of waste into a recycling bonanza

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Kevin Fitzwilliam

Trashformers ready a pedal-powered recycling bin for their parade debut Saturday.

For revelers with an environmental conscience, the Carnival season can be a plastics minefield that you have to cross to enjoy the creativity and beauty of New Orleans’ biggest celebration.

That’s very much top of mind as a group of us calling ourselves the Trashformers makes our parading debut this weekend.

For decades, city and tourism officials proudly measured Mardi Gras’ economic success by how much trash we generated. More recently, concerned citizens — yours truly among them — have been trying to raise public awareness of the ecological impact of all that trash.

Last year seemed like a turning point. The discovery of just how many tons of plastic beads wind up in a flood-prone city’s storm drains became a topic of media coverage and conversation over dinner tables and workplace coffee pots all across town.

Through teamwork with a half-dozen other core volunteers, I helped launch a recycling initiative on the Napoleon and St. Charles Avenue parade routes. The Young Leadership Council, Republic Services, and The ARC of Greater New Orleans joined forces in setting up six tents along the Uptown route, places where people could recycle their cans, bottles, and unwanted throws. Beads went into crawfish sacks and other recyclables into clear plastic bags that we heaved up into trucks provided by Republic and ARC as we marched along behind the Krewe of Freret parade.

Judging from the enthusiasm of the crowd, it was easy to see there was a lot of public support for a more sustainable Carnival. We had to turn away volunteers because we didn’t have the capacity to take them on, and the feedback from parade crowds was overwhelmingly positive. A separate initiative drew 15,000 folks to sign an online petition to ban plastic beads outright.

This year our new collaborative, the Trashformers, will roll — I use the term advisedly — as part of krewedelusion, and I’d like to think it’s the most artistic and innovative recycling effort yet. If you’re going to take in krewedelusion Saturday night (February 16) and want to see the Trashformers, look for about 15 parading members dressed in eco-pun costumes like “Pacific Garbage Patch Doll,” “Lord of the Six-Pack Rings,” “Amazon Prime,” and “(Aluminum) Can-ie the Clown.”

Some of the Trashformers will be walking, and others will be riding on distinctive neon green-decorated contraptions that fall somewhere between a tricycle and a shopping cart. Trashformers will encourage parade-goers to load these hybrid vehicles with cans, plastic bottles, go-cups and unwanted throws.

Four of the inaugural members from last year’s volunteer recycling effort will be marching as Trashformers.  The founder of the krewe is, Brett Davis, a local architect, who has emerged as a leader in the movement for a more environmentally-aware Mardi Gras. The Trashformers idea was birthed at a forum Davis co-organized last October, called the Future of Mardi Gras. The primary focus was and remains waste reduction at parades.

“We wanted to have a community discussion about how take control over ballooning amounts of trash left in the streets,” Davis said, noting that 2.5 million pounds were collected in 2018. It’s “clogging our storm drains and costing taxpayers millions of dollars to clean up.”

After the October forum, L.J. Goldstein, one of the founders of krewedelusion, approached Davis. Might there be a way for the krewe to build recycling right into its parade?

Davis was intrigued by the idea: “I thought, why not try to capture reusable items as a part of a marching krewe that is engaging the crowd while they watch. We can act as the river that collects unwanted items from the banks of people and get it to a better place and do it in pure Mardi Gras style by making it fun, visually interesting, interactive and satirical. We can be the marching krewe with a job to do.”

Davis envisions a day when the instantly-recognizable trash receptacles might be ubiquitous. “What if every marching krewe and band had a few of these tagging along collecting and bagging stuff that could be dropped off at supportive residences or businesses along the route?” he said. “That would be such a positive and needed change for the city and Mardi Gras — something that empowers every person in, at or around a parade to do something beneficial for our streets and our planet.”

Kevin Fitzwilliam

The finished product!

Goldstein salutes the Trashformers’ debut: “The Trashformers precisely align with our core ethos, to save the universe and to do it from the center of the universe — New Orleans. From our inception, our throws have been meant to be handmade local throws, not imported. Each year, we aspire to reduce our plastic and carbon footprint. The Trashformers are like a super boost in that direction because they are not throwing anything, in fact the opposite.”

Antonio Garza, head of security for krewedelusion, waxes poetic in his support for our small but, we hope, inspiring effort. “The Trashformers’ hearts are arguably larger than their recycling containers,” he said, noting that krewedelusion constitutes a “fuel-free, mule-free parade that is open to experiments. We feel that there is a connection in ethos to the Trashformers and our mission,” he added. “Our throws are small, but our hearts are big.”

Garza shares Davis’ sense that there’s a promising future for Trashformers, all across Carnival.

“What is beautiful about the Trashformers is that this could be something that has legs.  It could breed a whole new tribe of people who are engagingly mitigating the plastic of Mardi Gras.  I think it’s great that krewedelusion gets to foster this. The attitude is, let’s do it, and let’s see if we can make it fun.”

Getting the word out is the first step toward building a culture in support of a more sustainable carnival, Garza said.

The Trashformers are one of a growing number of local groups dedicated to promoting waste reduction during carnival. We hope to catch the eye of parade-goers with a creative approach that makes people want to participate in an environmentally sound effort. And this Saturday night, you can see it firsthand. Pitch in — and let us know how we do!

Kevin Fitzwilliam is the owner/creator of Atlas Handmade Beads, a New Orleans company helping to move the Gulf South beyond plastic beads in favor of handcrafted necklaces made with recycled paper by women in Uganda (www.atlasbeads.com). He will be (Aluminum) Can-ie the Clown in the Trashformer segment of Saturday’s krewedelusion parade. He can be reached at info@atlasbeads.com.

The opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.

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