Fat Tuesday arrives in NOLA amidst much fanfare. It’s the last hurrah of Carnival, an event that annually brings millions to The Big Easy.
What follows are millions of people suffering from the excesses of the party. NOLA has its own headaches in the wake of Mardi Gras: some 25 million pounds of plastic beads are distributed each year as part of the festivities, along with millions of other cheap plastic trinkets. Many disposable cups and “throws” are left behind in the cold light of day, where a massive clean-up effort delivers the sundry detritus straight to the landfill.
The tradition of throwing beads during Mardi Gras developed in the 1920s, and the original necklaces were of modest length, typically made of glass beads, imported from Czechoslovakia and Japan. In the 1970s, plastic (#6 polystyrene) necklaces made in China began to take over. Filmmaker David Redmond produced a documentary about the bead phenomenon in 2005, entitled Mardi Gras: Made in China. Using Mardi Gras beads as the central subject, his film illuminates the global trade connection and the marked contrasts between the workers who make and string the beads in Fuzhou, China and the Mardi Gras revelers who eagerly seek them. (Teasers for the film can be viewed on YouTube, and the movie is available through Netflix.)
A 2010 article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune revealed that the bead relationship has changed little since 2005. According to the article, the shiny Chinese necklaces not only remain a staple of Mardi Gras, but are finding a steady year-long market throughout the U.S. as inexpensive promotional swag.
I was therefore relieved to read a story in the LA Times this week about the energetic efforts underway in NOLA to recapture the shimmering necklaces for reuse. One group, the Arc of Greater New Orleans, encourages “catch and release,” that is, enjoying the beads for the duration of a parade, but then relinquishing them to a collection trailer as it follows behind the parade. Another group, Verdi Gras, will set out bead collection bins this year along the famous Krewe of Ponchartrain’s parade route. Verdi Gras envisions a future where local, hand-made gifts become the rage. They point to the success of the Zulu Krewe’s hand-painted coconuts, regarded as among the most prized Mardi Gras mementos of all.
Why toss those beads permanently when they can be re-sought year after year in the fun of the moment? Mardi Gras celebrants definitely love the party, and they wear Mardi Gras beads to signal their wholehearted enthusiasm, but we suspect relatively few cherish the beads beyond Fat Tuesday— and would be happy to see them reused.