The revelry. The lights. The bands. The crowds. The floats. And, of course, the throws. This is our modern Mardi Gras. The kind of event where people come in drove to partake of the city’s hospitality as they fight over pieces of plastic. Once upon a time, Mardi Gras meant something. Now, it just stands for debauchery, greed and ill-manners.
Throwing beads has been a tradition of Carnival since the late 1800s. Back then, the beads were Czech glass in multi-colored strings. With the advent of cheap plastics, beads turned commercialized. Soon these small plastic beads were replaced with larger plastic beads until they evolved into today’s oil based beads. Today’s beads have lost their intrinsic value because of their mass-produced availability, yet because they are flashier than ever, these beads become more sought after. At the same time, more and more beads are being left in the street from being broken or unwanted. Revelers don’t respect the beads because there are simply too many to be had.
Trinkets have quickly become a much sought after commodity. Perhaps one of the most coveted trinkets is neither plastic nor stuffed. It is the Zulu coconut, a traditional throw that is as old as the krewe and has only gone through cosmetic change. Bar these, trinkets have become screen-printed, monogrammed, embroidered, light-up bits of poly and plastic. While some can be pretty cool, like Orpheus' light-up tambourine, others can be amazingly cheap, like the admittedly cute Saints plush that was already falling apart when I caught it. Most of the plushes don’t seem to be worth more than as a dog’s toy. At least the light-up trinkets can be useful but once that non-replaceable battery dies, they become yet another item cluttering your home.
The amount of waste generated during Carnival is astounding. So much so that you don’t need hard numbers to know this, you just have to look around after the parade has passed. Discarded plastic bags, broken beads, food, and drinks litter the ground, lying where they were dropped and forgotten. The trash doesn’t just stay on the parade route; it finds its way down side streets and onto peoples’ front yards. However, the city-hired clean-up crews don’t worry about that; they were hired just to clean the parade route itself. The city spends millions to pick up trash after the parades, money that could be used elsewhere.
There has to be a solution to cut down on the excesses while keeping the exuberance of Carnival. The season’s success should never be measured by how many tons of garbage is produced. But what can we do, you ask? We start by changing the American psyche. Bigger is not always better. We need to cut down on the volume of beads being bought and thrown by going with more locally-made and eco-friendly beads like glass, wood, clay, even newspaper. Instead of plastic bag packaging, beads should come in paper bags, a renewable, recyclable and biodegradable resource. Recycling bins should be set up equidistant down the parade route, with slots for an assortment of goods to encourage their use. In the meanwhile, programs like Arc of New Orleans’ “Catch and Release,” need to be legalized and instituted to promote and facilitate the reuse of unwanted beads.
Mardi Gras and Carnival season need a green facelift. There is too much trash and waste. Something has to be done about this and it has to start at home. This is our city, our world-famous New Orleans. We don’t want it trashed, we want it beautiful. So next time you sign up to ride, think green. One person can make a difference by inspiring the next.