Last year, the city of New Orleans announced that workers had sucked 46 tons of Mardi Gras beads from catch basins on the side of the road. And that was from just five blocks along St. Charles Avenue -- one of the main parade routes.
That news got a lot of attention, and a growing number of people are trying to figure out how to reduce Mardi Gras waste -- without reducing the magic.
This week on the Coastal News Roundup, WWNO’s Travis Lux and Thomas Walsh take a look at what’s being done.
The transcript below has been edited for clarity:
TL: I went to the krewedeusion parade a couple weeks ago. It was fairly typical in that there were floats with colorful lights and brass bands interspersed throughout. People with cups and cans lining the streets, cheering as the krewes danced by.
Krewedelusion isn’t a throw-heavy parade, but at many Mardi Gras parades the krewes throw stuff to people in the crowd, like coconuts or beads. Generally speaking, lot’s of plastic stuff. One of the sub-krewes in this parade was doing the opposite: they were asking the people in the crowd for stuff -- their trash.
JEANFREAU: Beer cans, y’all! We’ll take them! Or plastic, 1-7!” We’ll take them all!!”
TL: Rachael Jeanfreau [JOHN-fro] is part of this new krewe called the Trashformers. Their whole mission is to collect as many recyclables as they can as they can from people in the crowd, so it doesn’t end up on the street, and eventually, in a landfill.
TW: Yeah I saw photos of those guys. It’s a pretty unique idea. They had these crazy neon green tricycles with shopping carts attached.
TL: Exactly. So they’re pedaling down the street, and once they figure out what’s going on someone from the crowd will toss a can into the basket -- and then get congratulated with high-fives and cheers from the Trashformers. It was a fun environment.
The group was started by Brett Davis. Before the parade, he told me that he’s trying to test this out a potential model for how to reduce waste along the route. If all goes well, he’s hoping it’ll grow.
DAVIS: Maybe one day have something where we have a marching krewe like ourselves, intermittently, throughout many parades. And a very branded look so that when the public sees all these neon red green bikes, or whatever a collection device it is, they're like, ‘Oh, get your stuff ready, here comes the collectors.’ And they’re going to be dressed up and doing it in a fun way.
TL: This was the first year for the Trashformers, but Davis told me he’d had the idea for a while, but it really picked up steam in the fall at this conference called the Future of Mardi Gras. It was organized by the Urban Conservancy, which is a non-profit that works on infrastructure and environmental issues in New Orleans.
TW: I attended this conference. It was down at the Carver Theater on Orleans. A couple hundred people were there -- a lot of the usual suspects that you would expect from Mardi Gras. Walking krewes, riding krewes, civic organizations, neighborhood groups. There were panel discussions about things like crafting. traditions, and even perennial issues like gentrification.
TL: I talked with one of the organizers of the conference, Dana Eness, who is the Executive Director of the Urban Conservancy. I asked why she wanted to do a conference about the future of Mardi Gras. She said the impetus came from a lot of different places, but she just kept thinking about all those tons of beads that were removed from catch basins on St. Charles.
TW: I don’t think anyone can forget that headline.
ENESS: Coupling that with our flooding issues and our infrastructure issues -- that was really what got me thinking it's time for us to have a really big conversation about our carnival practices.
TL: People who attended the conference were asked to fill out a survey that asked them to list their biggest concerns about Mardi Gras. Eness says environmental issues and waste issues rose to the top of these surveys. More than half said it was their main concern.
ENESS: Increasing recycling and actually reducing the amount of garbage. And rethinking how we measure the success of Mardi Gras so we're no longer measuring it in terms of tonnage [of garbage].
TL: And Thomas -- you interviewed people at that conference. What did you hear?
TW: It was kind of in this whole spirit of “Greening the Gras” so to speak. I was asking people about throws that were actually worth their time, versus stuff that’s not. Aspects of parades and Carnival, in general, that they’d like to see change, and ways the city can help.
Here are some responses from conference attendees:
"The whole thing is insanity. We catch these beads and then we put them in a plastic bag, and then they sit in the corner of the house for six months until we either recycle them or just get sick of them and throw ‘em out."
"We’ve passed the era of plastic in our environment and so we’ve got to reconfigure a medium that will biodegrade."
"The waste buildup in the drains -- I know they have catch basins -- but I think more work has to be done towards that."
"I think that there definitely could just be more trash cans everywhere."
"Recycling center every-other block. Every-other block. My taxpayer money should pay for that and they don’t."
"I don’t know. Sometimes when I get a throw I ask myself, 'Would I rather have this, or a dollar bill?' And I always think I’d rather have a dollar bill."
"I would love to get more things that are actually practical: cosmetic bags and combs and hairbrushes and nail files."
"You know, we have biodegradable glitter now. So that could be used."
"The vendors that sell food: I really would like to see them eliminate styrofoam containers."
"I think we should be putting a lot more of our effort around Mardi Gras back into art."
"I would just as soon see krewes spend more money on bands and spectacle."
"I go to the parades to enjoy the experience with my family and friends and to take in the music and socialize. And so for me it’s not about hauling off a bunch of stuff."
TW: You can hear there’s a lot of overlap. Varying ideas. But, I was just at the parades this past weekend and I gotta tell you, it’s kind of hard to conceive of a beadless Mardi Gras.
TL: I know. I actually put this question to Eness. And she said based on her conversations with people at this conference and elsewhere, what they really find memorable about Mardi Gras is not the quantity of stuff they walk away from a parade with, but the quality.
ENESS: It's the magic of that moment and that moment of connectivity between the rider or the walker and the parade goer. Right? Whatever it is -- whether it's just you jumping in line and dancing a little bit with somebody or they're giving you something. Handing you that coconut and handing you that shoe.
TL: Eness says making Mardi Gras more environmentally friendly could take a lot of time and a lot of people buying in -- from krewe leaders to parade goers to city officials. But she feels that like minds have finally started coming together on this, and is encouraged by what she’s seeing.
TW: What does the city do about all this?
TL: The city has put these things called “Gutter Buddies” in front of some storm drains. The idea is that those will block some of the beads and trash from clogging those catch basins along the street.
The city is also encouraging people to take advantage of some of the recycling programs out there on select parade routes. On some of the uptown routes this weekend, volunteers from several organizations will be handing out bags to parade goers that you can put your extra beads, cans, and cups into. Those bag will be collected and recycled at the end of the parade.
TW: That sounds good, and so does the Gutter Buddy -- that’s what a lot of the people at the conference wanted to see. Just something in place of those storm drains.
If you have any extra beads -- and we know everyone out there is going to -- you can recycle them with the Arc of Greater New Orleans. There are a couple dozen drop off locations around town -- they’ll sort and recycle them for you. A full list of those locations is online at the ArcGNO website.
Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Walton Family Foundation, the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Foundation for Louisiana, and local listeners.