Mardi Gras may be over but what will happen to all those beads?

By Sandra Curtis

Every year, 20 million pounds of plastic beads are shipped to the U.S., primarily from China, with 75 percent of them destined for Louisiana. And New Orleans, where much of the Mardi Gras partying happens, doesn’t have a recycling program for the beads. Each year, the city is overwhelmed by the sheer amount of trash generated from the parades.  

So just where did this trash nightmare of a tradition begin? Where and who makes these colorful plastic beads? Is there an alternative with a better ending?

The History

Mardi Gras is an historical Christian observance that marks the end of Carnival, the celebration season which begins on Jan. 6 (the Twelfth Night of Christmas which tradition marks as the visit of the wise men to the Baby Jesus) and runs until Fat Tuesday (the English translation of the French “Mardi Gras”), the day before Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent.

In many parts of the world, churches hold celebrations on Fat Tuesday where rich foods are served—pastries made with lots of butter and eggs, and of course rich, buttery, syrupy pancakes, hence, the “fat.” It's traditionally the last day for folks to indulge before they begin their fasts for Lent. During Carnival season, the faithful prepare themselves for the spiritual rigors and disciplines of Lent. For many of the not-quite-so-faithful, that means getting their fill of partying before they get serious about spiritual things during Lent.

The first Mardi Gras celebration in Louisiana was recorded on March 2, 1699 at the mouth of the Mississippi River in what is now lower Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana. Iberville, Bienville, and their men celebrated it as part of an observance of Catholic practice. The date of the first celebration of the festivities in New Orleans is unknown. A 1730 account by Marc-Antoine Caillot notes celebrating with music and dance, masking and costuming (including cross-dressing) and by 1743, the custom of Carnival balls on Mardi Gras was already established with processions and wearing masks in the streets. These celebrations were sometimes prohibited by law, but were quickly renewed when restrictions were lifted or enforcement waned.

Colorful strands of Mardi Gras beads. Photo via Baton Rouge Moms. 

Colorful strands of Mardi Gras beads. Photo via Baton Rouge Moms

In 1833 Bernard Xavier de Marigny de Mandeville, a rich plantation owner of French descent, raised money to fund an official Mardi Gras celebration. In 1856, six businessmen gathered at a club room in New Orleans's French Quarter to organize a secret society to observe Mardi Gras with a formal parade. They founded New Orleans' first and oldest krewe, the Mystick Krewe of Comus. In 1872, a King (Rex) of Carnival along with the Knights of Momus and the Krewe of Proteus were created. People in the parades dressed as high-class aristocrats accompanied Rex, who tossed sugar coated almonds into the crowds. These Mardi Gras “throws” were similar to the festival customs of the English Renaissance era. In 1875 Louisiana declared Mardi Gras a legal state holiday.

Traditional Mardi Gras beads are purple, green, and gold colors with these three colors representing the Christian symbolism of power, justice, and faith respectively. Traditionally, people put on Mardi Gras beads on Fat Tuesday and took them off the following day, Ash Wednesday, the start of Lent.

Modern Day

Strings of beads have been thrown from floats to parade-goers since at least the late 19th century. Until the 1960s, the most common were multi-colored strings of glass beads made in Czechoslovakia. More durable, less expensive plastic beads supplanted the glass beads, initially from Hong Kong, then Taiwan, and more recently from China. With the lower-cost, float-riders can purchase greater quantities, and throws have become more numerous. However, more sophisticated throws have begun to replace simple beads. Krewes have started to produce limited edition beads and plush toys that are unique to the krewe. Fiber optic beads and LED-powered prizes are among the most sought-after items. In a retro-inspired twist, glass beads have returned to parades. Now made in India, glass beads are one of the most valuable throws.

Where are the plastic beads made? 

Mardi Gras: Made in China, David Redmon's 2005 film explores the life cycle of plastic beads, tracing them from their manufacturing facility in Fuzhou, China, to their use by revelers at Mardi Gras in New Orleans. He investigates the low wages and substandard conditions endured by the factory's workers. Clips of the film show candid interviews with both the Chinese workers and the Mardi Gras crowd, revealing the vast economic and cultural chasm between the two. His book, Beads Bodies, and Trash, follows up on the documentary by providing an ethnographic analysis of the social harms, the pleasures, and the consequences of the toxicity that Mardi Gras beads produce.

The Chinese bead factories operate 24 hours a day with two shifts of workers, mostly young women, generating millions of dollars for the owners. The workers earn a penny for 12 necklaces with the price of the necklaces in the U.S. equal to about 3 months of the Chinese workers salaries. Their wages are based on the quantities they produce. Workers earn bonuses for producing over their quotas and their wages are reduced if they fail to reach their quotas.  Shifts are 11 hours a day, plus they must add on meal time, which makes for 14 hours days. They can be fined for talking on the job.

The health hazards they face are substantial. The beads are made from polystyrene and polyethylene. Styrene has been labeled a neurotoxin by the U. S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. Studies have also shown that styrene causes cancer when melted and inhaled. For all their effort and exposure, the majority of beads these workers make become waste after the Mardi Gras celebrations.

New Solutions

But that’s not where this story ends. Individual revellers are re-examining their need for beads made in exploitative factory situations. A few local organizations have stepped in to stem the tide of plastic flowing into local landfills by collecting and reusing the beads for the next year. Arc of Greater New Orleans has been reusing beads for twenty years.

The organization partnered with Uber in which the rideshare company provides a half-day of free pick-up during Mardi Gras for anyone who calls. The Uber partnership brought in 17,000 pounds of beads in four hours this year. Krispy Kreme adds to the “fat” by rewarding customers who donate beads with a free dozen donuts. Arc has a Fair Trade section featuring cloth Frisbees, fabric boas from Guatemala and paper beads from Uganda that they encourage krewes to throw instead of plastic beads.

So, if you find yourself in New Orleans and the bead craze entices you, stop for a moment to think about how they got here, who made them, and what happens after you’ve celebrated Fat Tuesday. If you still must have some as souvenirs, purchase the retro glass beads from India. The earth will thank you.

Trash photo via Waste 360

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