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Mardi Gras Beads: Sweatshops, Pollution, And Other Dirty Little Secrets

Artifacts | February 27, 2020

Mardi Gras cleanup is a monumental task. (plasticpollutioncoalition.org)

If you've ever been to Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or if you've even heard of either one of those things, you know that part of the experience is catching colorful Mardi Gras beads. Little do these bead-chasers know, however, that whatever nefarious deeds they did to get them, the acts that brought the beads into being were far worse. Let's examine why people throw beads, the sweatshops that make them, the environmental hazard they present, and how on Earth we can solve any of those problems. (Obviously, canceling Mardi Gras is not an option.)

Mardi Gras revelers on Bourbon Street. (euclidlibrary.org)

What You Should Know About Mardi Gras Beads

Mardi Gras in New Orleans is a spectacle not often seen in these non-Roman times. Swarms of merrymakers, most of them drunk, line the parade route to see the bright and gaudy floats, and of course, to catch the beads thrown to the crowd by the floaters. The beads are highly coveted, so partygoers often take outrageous measures to persuade the beadkeepers to toss some their way, most of which involve some degree of indecent exposure. They might not be aware that they could just buy some beads from a street vendor or in any of the souvenir shops that dot Bourbon Street after the party is over, but maybe they just want to feel like they earned them. Whether skin or scratch, you're going to pay a price for your beads.

Original Mardi Gras beads were made of glass. (earth911.com)

Why Do We Throw Mardi Gras Beads?

Although Mardis Gras is an ancient celebration, the throwing of colorful jewelry only dates back to the late 1800s. In those times, the costumed "king" of Carnival would bestow gifts of small baubles and trinkets upon his loyal "subjects" in much the same fashion that a real royal may present an important visiting nobleman with a fine piece of jewelry, just on a wider, gaucher scale. Early on, glass beads were used, but the advantages of plastic (read: cheaper than dirt) soon won out. Mardi Gras beads are always purple, gold, and green, which signify justice, power, and faith, respectively.

Most Mardi Gras beads are manufactured in China. (fandom.com)

Where Do Mardi Gras Beads Come From?

Like almost all plastic products, Mardi Gras beads start out as petroleum drilled from the Middle East, which is then sent to the factories of the Fujian province in China. According to reports, many of these factories are akin to sweatshops, with teenage workers toiling long hours in poor conditions to meet impossible quotas. The pay is low even before employees' wages are docked if they make a mistake, and some of the materials used in the production process contain toxins like lead and arsenic. These chemicals have made their way into the water and soil along the parade route in New Orleans, to say nothing of the workers who handle them. Just something to consider the next time you fail to consider the value of exposing yourself for cheap ornaments.

Beads lie on a sidewalk as the Zulu Parade runs through New Orleans on Mardi Gras. (EMILY KASK/AFP via Getty Images)

Mardi Gras Beads And Pollution

Even if the beads were made from nothing but the purest precious metal, the sheer number of them floating around out there is an overwhelming environmental problem. Every year, about 25 million pounds of Mardi Gras beads are thrown to the revelers at Mardi Gras. Not all of them are going to find their way around the neck of a junior attorney who just really needed to let loose after the fourth quarter, so they clog storm drains, weigh down power lines, and fill landfills. The plastic beads take hundreds of years to break down, so when the aliens arrive to survey this long-deserted planet, they'll probably conclude they were our primary form of currency.

One solution to the waste problem might be biodegradable beads. (mardigrasneworleans.com)

A Call For A Solution

As Mardi Gras fans become more aware of the environmental problem posed by the colorful plastic beads, options to reduce the waste have been more thoroughly explored. One possible solution is to use beads made of organic, biodegradable material made in the United States. A Louisiana-based company called Zombeads uses local workers to produce Mardi Gras beads that naturally decompose, mitigating the need for Chinese sweatshops and the landfill issue. 

"Catch and release" is an immediate recycling move. (mardigrasneworleans.com)

"Catch and Release" Programs

In recent years, New Orleans has tried to cut down on the bead problem by implementing a "catch and release" program. The Mardi Gras beads are tossed as usual during the parades, but workers trail behind the floats and offer to take back unwanted Mardi Gras beads. There are even depositories for revelers to leave the beads, but they're stuck with the rest of the poor choices they made that night.

Some environmental groups are recycling beads. (abcactionnews.com)

Recycled Mardi Gras Beads

Some organizations in New Orleans are working to reduce the waste caused by the annual celebration by collecting discarded Mardi Gras beads and recycling them. The beads are collected from trash companies and picked up from the streets, after which they go through a sanitation process before being repackaged and resold. The process is expensive and time-consuming, but hey, do you have a better solution?

Tags: holidays | New Orleans | traditions

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.