Mardi Gras produces days of merriment, indulgence, a few hangovers — and a lot of garbage. Once the parades have passed and the beads have been thrown, the cleanup begins.
This year two New Orleans organizations aimed to change things with a pilot recycling project to collect cans, plastic bottles and that ubiquitous Mardi Gras accessory dangling from fences, trees and balconies: beads.
Hannah Kincannon heads recycling efforts for the Young Leadership Council, which has partnered with local events and festivals to help make them greener. She said Mardi Gras is how the city represents itself to the world.
"We really want to represent ourselves as a city that has a sustainable mindset," she said. "Just like Mardi Gras is something that everyone can participate in, recycling is something everyone can participate in."
Mardi Gras generates hundreds of millions of dollars and brings thousands of visitors to the city. But it has an environmental impact. Earlier this year, the city announced it had cleared out 93,000 pounds (42,200 kilograms) of beads clogging catch basins.
Stephen Sauer, executive director of Arc of Greater New Orleans, which is working with YLC, said the beads are toxic and have a tendency to twist and make knots.
"Anytime we can avoid getting beads in landfills and out of the catch basins, the better we are," he said.
ArcGNO, which helps people with intellectual disabilities, already had a project where they accept, sort and resell beads to the krewes that put on the various parades. But that relied on people bringing their beads after the parades were over.
This year, the two organizations went to the source. They set up six recycling centers to collect beads, plastic bottles and aluminum cans. Volunteers also handed out bags for people to fill, and trucks traveled behind the parade to collect the recyclables.
Rainy weather curtailed the pilot project, but Sauer was still encouraged by the enthusiasm they encountered among parade goers — people like New Orleans resident Dorie DeLuca.
"I think it's great because if you're here after the parade has finished, you see all the trash on the ground. Recycling cans, it's so easy," DeLuca said.
Another parade-goer, Jennifer Chamberlain, said she was heartened to see the volunteers picking beads off the ground and handing out bags. She's brought her beads to Arc's facility before, but having them picked up along the route was more convenient.
"You want to catch stuff, but you don't really want to bring it home," she said.
Bridgette Miramon, from waste management company Republic Services, which volunteered to collect the bottles and cans, says the region has traditionally trailed the rest of the country when it comes to recycling. But she said that when she walked behind the recycling trucks, people were so excited they were "high fiving me and hugging me."
She said they collected a little less than half a ton of cans and plastic bottles. Miramon was also "blown away" by the low level of contamination — other materials like pizza mixed in with the recyclables.
This isn't the first attempt at a Mardi Gras recycling project. A previous volunteer effort called "Verdi Gras" was tried a few years ago. ArcGNO also had a float where people could throw their beads back at the end of the parade, but that was discontinued out of safety concerns. Sauer said interest in recycling now seems higher in the city and among some of the krewes.
Cynthia Sylvain-Lear, who heads the city's Department of Sanitation, said cleanup workers don't have time to sort through garbage looking for recyclables at the end of the parades, so any recycling effort has to rely on people along the routes. She called this year's effort a start that might could be expanded in the future.
Kincannon from YLC said the organization aims to expand the recycling effort to more Mardi Gras parades next year and is working on recycling projects in conjunction with the other parades the city has throughout the year.
There's also an effort to make the beads themselves more environmentally friendly. LSU biological sciences professor Naohiro Kato has developed a process using microalgae that will make biodegradable beads — usually three times as expensive as standard beads — more affordable. These beads that break down in months instead of hundreds of years could be another way to reduce Mardi Gras' environmental impact.
"There's not just one way to solve it," Kato said. "We should tackle it from a number of different ways."
Follow Rebecca Santana on Twitter @ruskygal.