People around the world associate New Orleans with jazz music, spicy Cajun cooking, its strange dialect, and of course, Mardi Gras. What would a trip to the Big Easy be without watching a "Krewe" parade down St. Charles Avenue and a walk (or maybe a stumble) down Bourbon Street the night of Fat Tuesday, all the while being surrounded by more people adorned with purple, yellow, and green trinkets around their necks than you have ever seen at one time?
Along the parade routes, people are packed like sardines with their eyes fixed on the revelers atop the floats. But what are they all waiting for? It's that waterfall of plastic beads flying from almost every direction. And upon snatching as many of the trivial necklaces out of the air as possible, they leave the French Quarter with enough strands around their neck to rival Mr. T on his best day. It may sound like a party tonight...but it's still plastic tomorrow. And a lot of it does get left behind to affect the community long-term.
Over the month and a half stretch that is Carnival leading up to Fat Tuesday, a massive cleanup begins every morning where hundreds of tons of plastic beads and other single-use plastics are collected. But that's just part of the story, and we'll come back to that later to see what's being done about it.
The real story begins halfway around the world in locations like the Middle East and China long before the music plays, the food sizzles, and the drinks begin to flow. You see, the beads' lifecycle begins as petroleum that's sucked from dry desert landscapes and turned into polyethylene and polystyrene plastics, which in turn are shipped to Chinese factories to be processed into the final end products. With very few regulations for safety, workers rights, and what chemicals actually make up the final product, what we see down on the Bayou has a much darker side.
Many of these factories use underage teenagers, particularly women, who work long hours in highly-repetitive jobs pulling, cutting, attaching, and preparing the necklaces for shipment to the US. With particular attention paid to daily quotas, workers are either fined or given bonuses for their production. Each year, the US imports tens of millions of pounds of these beads from China and about 75% of them go to Louisiana. That is an astounding amount of plastic and up to 25 million pounds of it are dumped on the streets of New Orleans every year. This highly-intriguing video, from Mardi Gras - Made in China, blows the top off of the entire process and it's definitely worth the watch.
What's even more worrisome is the impact these beads are having on the local environment. Not only do they make their way into the muddy waterways surrounding New Orleans where they may last forever in the sediment, but there are studies that have shown the majority of the lead content in the city resides alongside the parade routes. Amounts that can reach an astonishing 4,000 pounds of lead contamination hit the streets each Carnival season. Other studies have detected toxic levels of other chemicals including bromine, arsenic, chromium, mercury, and chlorine just to name a few.
Now that you're aware of how these plastic beads are made and what happens to them once they get here, the question becomes, "What are we doing to curb the worst of this plastic pollution?" Well, steps are being taken, mostly by nonprofits and private entities, to raise awareness about the issues and to help collect some of the unused and discarded beads before they have a chance to wreak havoc in the environment and on human health.
For example, Arc of Greater New Orleans, places purple bins around the city for people to put their unwanted beads in when they leave the parade routes and the French Quarter. These beads, weighing in the hundreds of thousands of pounds, are then taken back to their facility where they are creating jobs for special needs adults washing, sorting, and placing them up for resale.
Another group, the Young Leadership Council, has developed its own version of a bead recycling program. They walk the parade routes and collect plastic bottles and unwanted beads. At just one parade they were able to collect 1.25 tons of beads.
And it isn't just those looking at recycling the beads that are having an impact; individuals and companies are starting to look at making the beads out of sustainable and biodegradable materials instead of plastic. For example, Naohiro Kato, a local plant biologist from Louisiana State University, is developing a process to make them out of algae, and Throw Me Something Green, is importing non-plastic throws with character so people want to actually keep them and wear them long-term.
While these programs are starting to make a difference, it is really only a complete shift in mentality and mindset that will ultimately solve the problem. At 4ocean, it's our job to raise awareness about these issues so that we can all take a second look at how we consume single-use plastic.
And don't get us wrong, we love a good party as much as an anyone, but we can take steps ahead of time, with our own personal decisions, to have as little impact on the environment and the ocean as we can. For those headed to Mardi Gras this weekend, we are jealous...but please just be mindful that the party doesn't end at the end of the night; its plastic hangover can last hundreds if not thousands of years.
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