Plastic Mardi Gras Beads Are Cheap, Fun To Throw — And Toxic For The Environment

Feb 18, 2020

It’s Mardi Gras season and the streets are filling up with parade-goers — and disposable plastic.

Every year, millions of pounds of plastic throws flood the streets of New Orleans for its Fat Tuesday festivities. Many of those beads and trinkets turn into litter or landfill waste almost immediately. 

To cut back on litter, the City of New Orleans has banned parade riders from throwing the plastic bags that beads come packaged in. But many environmentalists say that’s not enough. After being tossed from parade floats, the plastic throws wind up in landfills, storm drains and coastal fisheries.

Back in 2010, Holly Groh, a mom and physician, became concerned about the environmental impacts of all that plastic pollution.

“Our family went to the parade route Mardi Gras day the year after the BP oil spill and we were all just dumbfounded that we were surrounded by petroleum products,” she recalled.

Holly and her husband Kirk founded Verdi Gras or “Green Gras” to rethink the holiday’s excessive waste. 

“We decided to start putting the idea out there that we didn’t need all this stuff. We wanted to get back to the joie de vivre with a sustainable Mardi Gras that we could all enjoy.”

Groh discovered that the plastic beads weren’t just wasteful, but were also potentially toxic.

She traced the plastic imports to Chinese factories and was alarmed to find out that the shipments contained so many toxic chemicals that they couldn’t pass through California because of state health regulations. She teamed up with Tulane pharmacologist Howard Mielke to find out what exactly was in the beads. 

Trash on Canal Street after a Mardi Gras parade.
Credit Nick Solari/Flickr

Dr. Mielke found that the beads contain toxic lead, arsenic and carcinogenic flame retardants that come from hazardous electronic waste we send to China for disposal. 

“We try to prevent putting them into the landfills and they end up coming back to us as beads, and then we throw them into the landfill,” he explained.

Dr. Mielke found trace amounts of toxic chemicals. But trace amounts in mass volume — like the millions of pounds of plastic beads — can add up to significant environmental contamination, he said.

“When they undergo any kind of weathering, the material that’s in the bead will end up in landfills, leach and end up in the water table,” Mielke explained.

Beads that don’t make it to the landfill might have a more direct environmental impact.

In 2018, workers found 93,000 pounds of beads caught up in city’s storm drains. But no one knows how many pounds of beads pass through the drains into local waterways each year.

“From the storm sewers, they go into the pumping system and would be pumped out into the canals and ultimately the river,” said Mark Benfield, an oceanography professor at Louisiana State University.

Benfield has been using drones and skimming nets to survey plastic pollution in the Gulf of Mexico. He’s found the Gulf to have one of the world’s highest concentrations of microplastics, which are harmful bits of plastic 5 mm or less in diameter — about the size of a Mardi Gras bead. The levels in the Gulf are as high as in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, the island made of plastic trash that is approximately double the size of Texas.

And research from Stephen Midway, one of Benfield’s colleagues at LSU, found high levels of plastic including polyethylene, one of the main ingredients found in Mardi Gras beads, in local seafood. Benfield said that’s because the shiny beads look and smell tasty to marine life.

“There’s lots of fish that feed on the seabed, and these beads are going to pass those pollutants on to the fish that consume them.”

In addition to the chemicals in the bead, that microplastic is a magnet for other hazardous contaminants.

“The chemical nature of the surface of plastic is such that it will tend to absorb organic pollutants — pesticides, herbicides, polyaromatic hydrocarbons. When they’re ingested by a fish, those organic pollutants are going to come off the plastic surface and enter into the tissues of that fish,” Benfield explained.

A wee float at this year's 'tit Rəx parade.
Credit Betsy Shepher/WWNO

Scientists say it can take hundreds of years for these plastic beads to bio-degrade. Compare that to the one-time use of most Mardi Gras throws.

New Orleans Infrastructure Chief Ramsey Green said as a city vulnerable to climate change, we need to shift to a more sustainable Mardi Gras.

“We need to be smarter about these environmental threats. To that end single-use plastic bags and non-biodegradable paper streamers are now prohibited,” Green said.

Riders can no longer throw the plastic bags that the parade beads are packaged in. But, Green said, don’t expect the city to regulate beads any time soon.

“There are a lot of stakeholders in Mardi Gras. I would say that is entirely up to the krewes,” Green said.

Over the last 10 years of trying to make Mardi Gras more sustainable, Holly Groh has seen a small amount of progress. She’s glad for the city’s bag ban. But, she said, it’s the millions of beads in the bags that are the real problem.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, and local listeners.