The beads were flying all around them, some pooling in the street, some caught by revelers and cherished for a moment — most of them destined, in all likelihood, for the landfill.
It was Mardi Gras 2011, and Kirk and Holly Groh were stationed in their family’s traditional viewing spot downtown, where they had watched so many parades roll by in years past.
This time, they kept thinking what a waste it was.
Their hometown had never seemed more environmentally fragile. Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters had claimed their house in August 2005. Five years later, they watched their local fishmongers worry their way through the BP oil spill.
But then the undersea gusher was finally capped, and a few months later New Orleans was once again inundated with millions of pounds of Chinese-made, petroleum-based plastic beads — the iconic spoils of Mardi Gras.
“Nothing had changed,” Holly said. “We were astonished, and just kind of dumbfounded.”
The Grohs have since flung themselves into one of the nation’s more esoteric — and, some would argue, futile — environmental crusades: Bringing a little conservationist restraint to the city’s pre-Lenten orgy of excess, which this year falls on Feb. 21.
The movement, for now, is modest, and its concerns are myriad, but most of the effort has focused on the estimated 25 million pounds of plastic beads that make their way to the city every year.
The beads, of course, are central to the ritualized gift exchanges unique to Mardi Gras season, a multi-day series of parties and parades that brings an estimated million revelers to the streets for what is sometimes called “the Greatest Free Show on Earth.” Members of Mardi Gras “krewes,” the private social organizations that stage the parades, spend thousands to purchase the shiny baubles by the gross at local Carnival-themed superstores, then fling them to crowds who beg for them with the exclamation, “Throw me something, mister!”
In the touristy French Quarter, boozy packs of males stagger with beads stockpiled on their necks in the manner of Mr. T, infamously offering to bestow their gaudier strands on women who agree to flash a peek at their bare breasts.
But after the exchange is made, the beads’ value plummets. The parade-goers — among them the sobered-up tourists returning to, say, Wichita — are left, in the end, with strands of junk.
Traditional recycling centers cannot process the beads. However, a few nonprofits in recent years have refined programs that collect, bundle and resell them. And this year, an unprecedented crop of initiatives has sprung up to help feed the recycled bead market, with most of the ideas as idiosyncratic as the city itself.
The Arc of Greater New Orleans, a nonprofit that employs its mentally challenged clients in a bead-recycling program, introduced a trailer this season that will bring up the rear at some parades, encouraging revelers to throw back the trinkets they just caught with a slogan well-known to south Louisiana fishermen: “Catch and release.”
In October, a local environmental group called LifeCity held a contest it dubbed “Green the Gras.” The winning entrant proposed (but has not yet implemented) a system that would encourage the exchange of beads for tokens from businesses. The tokens could be used for a luxury most coveted on Mardi Gras day: the use of a clean bathroom.
On Feb. 11, the group the Grohs founded, Verdi Gras, tested a first-ever recycling pilot program with the blessing of city government, setting out bead collection bins along the route for the Krewe of Pontchartrain.
Like-minded revelers, about 130 of whom attended a Verdi Gras ball in January, imagine a future Carnival where more “throws” might be locally produced, handmade objets d’art. Kirk Groh, a 48-year-old lawyer, noted that the Krewe of Zulu’s hand-painted coconuts are always among Mardi Gras’ most coveted throws.
For these new activists, the deluge of beads is emblematic of regional attitudes about the environment that they wish to change. National green groups, which descended on Louisiana during the BP oil spill, often received a lukewarm reception from residents worried about the effect of stricter regulation on oil industry jobs. Before Katrina, New Orleans officials had discussed killing off the city’s curbside recycling program because of low participation rates.
“It’s a cultural thing,” said Ryan F. Berni, a spokesman for Mayor Mitch Landrieu. “We have a hard enough time convincing people to put their trash in the can.”
Some locals argue that Mardi Gras — with its promise of mirth, misrule and the temporary abdication of responsibility — is no time to start a campaign of do-gooderism.
“That’s not going anywhere,” Henri Schindler, a Mardi Gras historian, said of the Verdi Gras movement. “I’m sorry, but that’s just not going to happen.”
Mardi Gras, which translates as “Fat Tuesday,” refers to both the day before Lent, the Christian season of penitence, and, in New Orleans, the festive season that begins 12 days after Christmas, with private, masked balls and public parades.
The celebration was imported to Louisiana by French settlers in the late 1600s. The city’s official tourism website traces the throwing of baubles to 1871, when a float rider masking as Santa Claus gave out gifts from float No. 24 during the Twelfth Night Revelers parade. But Schindler said the practice began in earnest in the 1920s, when some riders began regularly arming themselves with small satchels full of trinkets.
“What began with one little sack of favors quickly morphed into several sacks, and people throwing their hands up,” he said. “Some of the old-line krewes didn’t even embrace it until World War II. All of the money and effort went into the floats and the costumes.”
The beads were originally made of glass, and imported from the former Czechoslovakia, which had a centuries-old bead-making industry. Cheaper beads arrived from Japan and Hong Kong in the 1960s.
The beads were eventually replaced by plastic beads from China. The manufacturing process was chronicled in the 2005 documentary “Mardi Gras: Made in China.” The movie, with its depictions of harsh labor conditions at one bead factory, has become a key catalyst for the green Carnival movement. Filmmaker David Redmon stumbled onto the topic after being originally drawn, from a sociological perspective, to the “Girls Gone Wild” video series, which has, for better or worse, shared the beads-for-breasts phenomenon with the world.
In the city’s Garden District, artist Stephan Wanger has started his own recycling effort, saving the environment one bead at a time. In 2007, he began cutting beads from their strands and gluing them to flat surfaces to create massive, glittering mosaics. One piece, a 30-foot-by-8-foot vision of the city from the Mississippi River, used more than 1 million beads.
Wanger, an ebullient 44-year-old native of Germany, is representative of the idealistic newcomers who settled here after Katrina, infusing the region with new ideas. As a “child of the Marshall Plan,” Wanger said, he felt compelled to move here to help rebuild New Orleans.
He found used beads everywhere — and a new calling.
“As a German, it’s embedded that you recycle, so I was like, ‘I gotta do something about this,’ ” he said. His first work was a bead-covered planter. Now he teaches his technique in local schools, and brags about the creation of an art form that will outlast him.
There are signs bead recycling is growing in popularity. At Arc, the nonprofit for the disabled, recycling coordinator Margie Perez said her group sold 100,000 pounds of recycled beads last year — about twice the amount they sold four years earlier.
Jimmy O’Flynn, 39, a rider in the Krewe of Endymion, sauntered into the Arc warehouse on a recent afternoon. He said he was buying beads to support the Arc program, but he wasn’t too worried about them ending up in the landfill. In his experience, they never made it that far.
O’Flynn said he learned this while doing demolition work after Katrina. The beads would come spilling out of ruined attics, like memories of good times long past.