UPDATE / February 27, 2024:
Krewe of Freret banishes plastic beads for its parades starting in 2025

A Krewe of Freret float from 2024 that depicted the NOLA-based producer and performance artist known as Boyfriend, who acts as the krewe’s first sustainability advisor – and is standing in front of her own image on the float. (Photo by Michael Alford; used by permission for The Lens)

Though the Krewe of Freret has spent 10 years debating its environmental impact, the point hit home early last month, when members had trouble reaching the krewe’s “Shorty Gras” concert due to flooding.

The Sewerage & Water Board attributed the chaotic flooding of that evening, February 3, to the “gutter buddies” meant to block plastic beads from catch basins along parade routes. But the SWB’s well-intended gutter barriers, along with discarded throws, ended up also blocking heavy rainfall from the storm drains along St. Charles Avenue, inundating areas that did not typically flood.

Within a few weeks, Krewe of Freret board members voted unanimously to ban plastic beads in its parades, starting in 2025.  

“I thought it was absurd that plastic beads contributed to the flooding,” said Bobby Hjortsberg, captain of the Krewe of Freret. “Our organization should stop contributing to that.”

Even under blue skies, Hjortsberg questioned the safety of the throws, after plastic beads stained the neck of his one-year-old daughter. Public-health officials have cautioned parents about the danger of the mass-produced plastic beads (for more details, see full story below, which was originally published on February 22, 2024). 

Freret’s decision, affecting just over 1,000 krewe members, is a blip on the radar compared to other, larger parades, Hjortsberg said. Still, it all adds up: over the next 10 years, the decision could prevent more than 301,750 pounds of toxic beads from entering the New Orleans ecosystem, according to krewe calculations.

“We’re already seeing a major shift in the psyche of the modern parade-goer,” said the local performance artist-producer Boyfriend, who acts as Freret’s new sustainability advisor. “Cheap plastic beads wind up on the ground or in storm drains, make their way into our water-table, leeching dangerous chemicals, and are packaged in excessive amounts of single-use plastic that blows off the floats and winds up all over the streets.”

WITHOUT GARBAGE TRUCKS, St. Charles Avenue could not come to life during Carnival.

A day of parades leave the street and neutral ground awash with trash. Street-cleaning crews carrying brooms and wheeling trash bins work into the night to clear the way for morning traffic on the avenue.

There’s a cadence to the work. Sweep, dump, bag. No sorting. Trash trucks heavy with beads, cans and throws tip their loads across the Mississippi River, at the River Birch Landfill. 

It’s efficient. No need for revelers to search for the nearest trash bin. Any cans dropped onto the street will be scooped up. Until 2003, the city would trumpet the amount of trash collected as one of the metrics of Carnival’s success. 

But some observers have come to look upon the mass waste with disgust. “It’s only within the last couple of years that the city of New Orleans and the local tourism bureau, New Orleans & Company, have recognized the huge stigma involved with Mardi Gras, the waste it creates and how visitors feel about it,” said New Orleans native Brett Davis, who founded Grounds Krewe, a nonprofit to tackle Carnival waste, the city’s unique problem.

In 2018, Grounds Krewe started as a single recycling station near the Napoleon Avenue intersection. Last year, with the launch of the city’s Recycle Dat! initiative, six recycling hubs appeared along St. Charles, each run by a different non-profit and staffed by paid workers, making $25 to $30 an hour, to collect recyclables and educate the Mardi Gras revelers about what can and cannot be recycled.

This year, collections increased steeply. Carnival 2024 totals show that Recycle Dat! partners more than tripled their collection of aluminum, from 1,475 pounds to 4,564 pounds – more than 150,000 cans – diverted from the landfill and brought to EMR Metal Recycling. Glass, too, nearly tripled, from 1,500 to 4,288 pounds. Recycled beads and throws increased slightly, from 11,535 to 12,729 pounds.

The increases came thanks to an exponential leap in funding, from the city and local sponsors, along with a new partnership with a worldwide organization’s United States chapter, Every Can Counts U.S., which was launched this year by the Can Manufacturers Institute, a national trade association to promote the “infinite recyclability” of aluminum.

(Plastic must be downcycled to a lower-quality product, and most often can only be recycled once before becoming too degraded and toxic. But aluminum can be used continuously to make new aluminum cans.)

This year, the Recycle Dat! initiative collected 4,564 pounds of aluminum cans, 12,729 pounds of throws, 4,288 pounds of glass bottles and 305 pounds of plastic bottles. (Photo by Mizani Ball/The Lens)

So far, the St. Charles hubs have operated only during the weekend daytime parades, to protect volunteers who walk the route collecting cans, Davis said. But in coming years, hours may expand, depending on momentum from two new pilot programs that launched this year.

The first pilot was a “can sweep” on Sunday, Feb. 4, during the first full weekend of Uptown parades. After that day’s last parade, the Krewe of King Arthur, the city’s sanitation department briefly held back its crews to allow a team of 12 paid workers to walk the parade route, plucking aluminum cans left behind on the street and in trash piles.

Covering a span of 10 blocks – less than a quarter of the entire route – they collected 289 pounds of littered aluminum – roughly 9,768 cans. Davis deemed it “a huge success.” To him, it also proved a point, in a city where less than 2% of residential waste is recycled, according to the industry publication Waste Dive. “We wanted to show the city of New Orleans that not everything has to go right into a dump truck and into a landfill.”

The second pilot came five days before Mardi Gras, on Muses Thursday, when Grounds Krewe and partners set up unmanned aluminum can recycling bins next to more traditional trash cans destined for the landfill. This marked the first time that unmonitored recycling bins were made available along the Uptown parade route. 

After that night’s three parades, the Recycle Dat! coalition picked up the new recycling bins, collecting 609 pounds of aluminum – more than 20,000 cans in a single night.

Once the aluminum was sold to EMR Metal Recycling at market rate, Every Can Counts U.S. worked with the Recycle Dat! initiative to double the revenue generated. Collected cans taken for recycling returned $3,269. This revenue will be divided in thirds so that three local charities receive donations of just over $1,000 each.

The three charities to receive these donations are the Pontchartrain Conservancy, which works to preserve and restore the Lake Pontchartrain Basin; Zeus’ Rescues, which works to eradicate pet homelessness and euthanasia within New Orleans; and NOLA Cans 4 Food, which uses aluminum recycling revenue to cook meals for the city’s community fridges.

At Harmony Circle (formerly Lee Circle), NOLA Cans 4 Food managed a recycling hub led by Kina Carney, an educator who was new to recycling advocacy when she signed up. She left with hopes of kickstarting recycling access near her Ninth Ward home. “I’m always crying and crumbling on the inside about how much plastic and things like that go to waste,” she said.

The Truths Behind Plastic ‘Recycling’

Plastic lines St. Charles Avenue, as float riders and those in crowds unwrap throws and discard the plastic wrapping, to be removed later by cleaning crews. (Photo by Keith Pinkston)

Where St. Charles intersects with St. Andrew, the Osprey Initiative, a Gulf Coast-based litter consulting and clean-up firm, managed a Recycle Dat! recycling hub. The hubs collected 240 pounds of plastic, more than 6,000 plastic bottles.

Those plastic bottles will be taken by truck to a recycling facility run by the Poarch Band of Creek Indians in Atmore, Ala. The plastic will be sorted and processed by Indorama Corporation and ultimately shaped into recycled Coca-Cola bottles.

But recycling plastic is not as effective or sustainable as recycling aluminum and glass. More than 99% of plastics are produced from fossil fuels and the vast majority cannot be recycled. Across the nation, as of 2021, only 5% of plastics are recycled. That’s contrary to messaging from companies like Exxon Mobil. 

A recent report from the Center for Climate Integrity concluded that oil and gas companies have spent the last few decades misleading the public about the recyclability of plastics. 

Plastic Mardi Gras beads are mainly sourced from China and are imported to the Gulf Coast annually by the tens of millions of pounds. But they are rarely made from new plastic. 

Instead, the plastics in these beads are often downcycled from electronic-waste plastic, which first housed devices like computers and phones and are infused with flame-retardant chemicals. The Ecology Center estimates that many of the toxic chemicals in Mardi Gras beads come from this e-waste recycling process. As a result, the colorful plastic strings often contain lead, heavy metals and other materials that can be toxic to humans—children in particular. 

Studies have also found elevated levels of lead in the soils of New Orleans along the parade routes, from decades of thrown beads along with the residual lead that lines many roadways from the days when auto gasoline contained lead. The Louisiana Department of Health has advised that, to prevent children from ingesting lead, parents should take precautions such as using hand wipes while attending parades, washing any beads picked up from the street and changing a child’s clothes promptly after they have been exposed to dirt on the routes.

On Mardi Gras day, members of RISE St. James, an organization opposing the construction of a new virgin plastic production complex in St. James Parish, rode some floats in the Krewe of Zulu, to throw postcards linked to petitions, alongside the parade’s iconic coconuts.

During the Krewe of Zulu parade, advocates with RISE St. James and the International Monitor Formosa Alliance threw sustainable bags containing postcards with a QR code link to the launch of their campaign calling on Citibank to divest, defund and denounce the “Sunshine Project” proposed by Formosa Plastics Group. (Photo courtesy of RISE St. James)

Last year, during Carnival 2023, 2.5 million pounds of waste were brought to the landfill in just 11 days. A quarter of this waste was plastic beads. (Breakdowns weren’t readily available for 2024.)

RISE St. James is trying to draw attention to the waste, to draw attention to the environmental harm created by plastic manufacturing and those who finance it. Their petitions call out the investment of Citibank, a Fortune 500 company, in a massive petrochemical complex planned for the small town of Welcome, La., in St. James Parish.

Each postcard included a link to the group’s petition, which calls on Citibank to divest, defund and denounce the $12 billion “Sunshine Project” that would use fossil fuels to create virgin plastic.

On Sunday Feb. 18, five days after Fat Tuesday, RISE St. James sent a letter to Mayor LaToya Cantrell asking her to address the environmental impact of Mardi Gras, focusing particularly on the “excessive use of plastic beads.” 

Sharon Lavigne, founder and director of RISE St. James, wrote, “I respectfully urge you to consider establishing an environmental sustainability committee dedicated to addressing plastic usage in our Mardi Gras celebrations.”

From Carnival Glass to Coastal Sand

The Glass Half Full collection station, outside the Christ Church Cathedral on St. Charles Avenue, collected aluminum cans, beads and other parade throws along with glass bottles that the nonprofit will turn into sand and gravel. (Photo courtesy of Glass Half Full)

While glass bottles are not technically allowed along the parade route, they still end up in the waste that’s left along St. Charles Avenue that is trucked to the River Birch Landfill.

Glass Half Full, one of the partners of the Recycle Dat! initiative, was founded in 2020 by Tulane students who had noticed the lack of glass-recycling facilities in New Orleans. The non-profit collects glass “waste” from residents across Louisiana and pulverizes it with hammer-mill crushers to create sand and gravel.

The pulverizing takes place on Louisa Street and is sifted to remove labels and other residue that may have been left on the glass. The particles are then sorted into products that range from super soft, beach-like powdered sand to chunky glass gravel. 

The chunkier gravel typically goes to construction projects or is turned into jewelry by local artisans, while 60% percent of the pulverized glass is donated to coastal restoration projects as sand, said Franziska Trautmann, co-founder and CEO of Glass Half Full. 

In some ways, it’s returning glass to its origins: glass is made by super-heating quartz sand until it melts.

The global sand industry is facing a shortage. Around the world, sand is being depleted at an alarming rate, through exploitative extraction practices such as dredging and mining. In southern Louisiana, dredging has contributed to the erosion of the state’s shoreline and wetlands.

Restoring Louisiana’s coastline would require hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sand, Trautmann said. But Glass Half Full has a dual mission: to fight coastal erosion with recycled sand and eliminate glass waste from landfills. The glass also can help prevent disaster, when scooped into sandbags that can protect vulnerable areas from flooding.

As the nonprofit’s name implies, they are optimistic about what comes next.

“Mardi Gras is a time of hope and fun,” said Trautmann. Collecting three times as much glass this year amplified those feelings. “It gave us a lot of hope,” she said.

Shifting from Recycling to Reducing Waste

A small soccer ball soars from a float during the Krewe of Tucks parade. This year, the City Council voted to ban throwing toilet paper during all parades, with an exception for the Krewe of Tucks, known for its potty humor. (Photo by Keith Pinkston)

Despite the growth of the Mardi Gras Recycle Dat! initiative, Grounds Krewe’s recycling work is a very, very small drop in the bucket, Brett Davis said.

“The waste is not shrinking,” he said. “It’s growing every year and we’re just barely keeping up with it.”

Real inroads require going beyond recycling, to “waste prevention,” Davis said.

His new passion is to add to recycling by selling sustainable throws. Grounds Krewe now offers a Sustainable Throw Catalog, featuring Louisiana-made products. So far, the efforts have sold over 425,000 throws. 

This year, many parade-goers were intrigued, as they caught packages of red beans, jambalaya, popcorn, cajun-boiled sunflower seeds and coffee beans, which flew from floats, along with other items from the Grounds Krewe catalog, including local and non-toxic toys, re-used glass beads and 100% recycled plastic cups. Part of the catalog’s philosophy is that people may be more likely to take home usable throws, such as compact mirrors, nail care kits, cloth drawstring backpacks, hats, wooden spoons and pot holders.

While individual riders have purchased the new throws in bulk, krewes have yet to make sustainability a priority as a whole, Davis said. 

The city, and its taxpayers, pay dearly for Carnival trash pickup—between $1.5 to 2 million annually for the nightly cleanup crews and transportation to River Birch landfill, according to Matt Torri, director of the Department of Sanitation. 

Carnival is viewed as a boon to the city, so krewes do not foot those costs. Each krewe pays the city the same modest parade-permit fee: a maximum of $1,500. Davis would like to see krewe members spend $10 less on disposable plastic Chinese throws and instead put that $10 toward the Recycle Dat! program. 

Recycle Dat! could swiftly ramp up its efforts, with the commitment of even one large krewe. “A superkrewe of 3,500 people could easily raise $35,000,” he said, “if each person spent $10 less on throws” — traditional throws, that are likely to end up on St. Charles as waste.