By Julia Hale
What’s the first thing you think of when someone says Mardi Gras? There’s a good chance you picture the colorful plastic beads that have become a universal symbol of Carnival season in New Orleans. But do you know where they came from? Do you care? “It’s not that we don’t care – some don’t care. It’s that most of us are busy with our own lives. Out of sight, out of mind.” This is how filmmaker David Redmon sees it.
Redmon is one of the few people who has made an effort to steer public attention towards the darker side of the beloved Mardi Gras festivities by shining light on the bead-making process. New Orleans has a special relationship with the shiny beads that have come to represent Carnival season just as much as king cake or the iconic combination of purple, yellow, and green. However, despite their popularity, few explorations have been made into the behind-the-scenes process of how the beads come to be and what happens when they are no longer in demand like they are during Mardi Gras. Most people know very little about the negative reality of the beadmaking process, or the harmful effects the trinkets have on the environment.
Mr. Redmon realized this and decided to do something about it. In 2005, he released the award-winning documentary “Mardi Gras: Made in China”, after a small observation piqued his curiosity. “During Carnival in New Orleans, I noticed several thousand slips of paper with the stamp: Made in China. I wanted to know who made the beads.”
The practice of throwing beads reportedly started during the late 1800s, when krewes started tossing cheap glass necklaces off their floats. The crowds loved them, and a tradition that is now iconic began. Every year, hundreds of thousands of people line the streets during parade season, some flashing skin and others simply pushing, shoving, and waving their arms in an effort to obtain as many beads as possible. The gleaming strands can then be spotted being proudly displayed around the necks of those who caught them, sometimes in comically large amounts. They are prizes to be won and then flaunted, collected and shown off as tokens of the celebration.
Beads have become an essential component of the Mardi Gras experience, but once the parade floats have rolled by and the Carnival season is over, they lose the value they once had to the people who worked so hard to catch them. Not all of them are tossed aside and discarded – some are kept for decoration or memories’ sake. It’s not uncommon to see beads hung on fences or being displayed in jars or on bookshelves. However, the vast majority of them return to being treated as the cheap pieces of plastic that they really are. They collect in waste bins and in the streets, glimmering reminders of the holiday that has passed. People who live in New Orleans see discarded beads everywhere, so often that they probably barely register the colorful strands as anything more than ordinary trash.
So, who makes the beads? The answer can be found in Redmon’s film. What Mr. Redmon found, and documented in his film, was a series of prison-like factories in Fuzhou, China where the beads are created. The employees are teenagers, mostly young girls, who work exhaustingly long shifts in inhumane conditions. Mr. Redmon says that he was shocked by “the youth of the workers sitting for hours – up to eighteen – while repeating the same motions every day, every month, every year….” Like most people, he was unaware that this was the process by which the famous Mardi Gras tokens were made. He emphasizes the problematic nature of this “out of sight, out of mind” perspective adopted by many Americans who don’t seem to care where their beads – or any of their other products – come from. “Conditions in China – or anywhere – impact everyone’s daily lives. Chemicals in furniture, fake food, baby toys with lead, manufacturing of plastic that erodes our ecology, and so on. Pollution doesn’t stay in one location – it travels everywhere.”
The beads, which are non-biodegradable and contain alarming amounts of lead and other heavy metals, are just one example of the dangers of economic globalization and the spread of pollution. When Carnival season is over, they enter storm drains, damaging marine life, or tangle in tree branches, where the lead they are composed of can seep into leaves and soil. Exposure to lead is deadly to plants and also poses a threat to humans, as it has been shown to significantly impair neurological function. The horrific environmental impact of the beads is simply too big to be ignored – but it is also a daunting problem to attempt to solve. They are such an integral part of Mardi Gras that getting rid of them entirely or even replacing them with something less environmentally harmful is simply out of the question.
“I love Mardi Gras,” says Margie Perez. “I love the tradition, the history, the parades and revelry. But I really do look at all the plastic being thrown and think how wasteful it is. Most of it winds up on the ground and eventually in landfills.” Ms. Perez is the Recycling Coordinator for Arc’s Recycling Center, a branch of Arc of Greater New Orleans that recycles donated beads by sorting them into bags and reselling them to float riders. This is a process that not only saves Krewe members money, but also cuts down on the harmful impact of the beads. It is one of the most effective solutions to the environmental and social issues detailed by Mr. Redmon.
Arc’s employs people with intellectual disabilities, as well occasional volunteer groups who help sort through the massive amount of donations the center receives. “It takes us all year to sort these beads,” says Ms. Perez, who supervises the sorting and selling process. “We’re never really caught up because donations keep coming in.” The center receives beads year round, but Mardi Gras season is unsurprisingly the busiest time of the year. “We sold two hundred thousand pounds of throws this year,” reports Ms. Perez. Collaboration with companies such as Krispy Kreme and Uber, as well as bead drives at hotels, schools, and office buildings, helped the center accumulate over ninety boxes of donations this year. “We have three full time employees and forty part time employees. They’re all paid minimum wage or higher. We rely on volunteer help because we wouldn’t be able to sort and sell two hundred thousand pounds of beads on our own.”
The sorting is done in a warehouse owned by the Recycling Center. Ms. Perez oversees the organization of the donations. “We have giant boxes that hold one thousand pounds of each donated item. We sort the beads in five categories: thirty-three inch, forty-eight inch and longer, pearls, Krewe logo beads, and Petites – the old fashioned tiny beads.” After being sorted, the beads are ready to be packaged in thirty pound crawfish sacks and sold in bulk.
Organizations like Arc’s Recycling Center are at the forefront of curbing the environmental and economic damage done by Mardi Gras. However, it’s important to look beyond beads and understand the bigger problem they represent. Globalization and consumerism will continue to degrade our environment unless we change the way we behave. Too many Americans will continue to look the other way, using their ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality to ignore the harm being caused by their non biodegradable products and wasteful habits. Recycling beads is just one way to fight back against the damage.
There are hundreds of small actions that can be done to make a difference, most of which are simple and easy to keep doing once they become a habit or part of a daily routine. “Plant a tree, grow a garden, stop buying new clothes,” Mr. Redmon advises. He also recommends avoiding items that are overly wasteful and thinking twice about the effects that everyday items might have on the environment. Being conscious of the environmentally degrading reality behind even the most common products is the first step to making a difference. “Just imagine the amount of pollution and chemical waste that goes into producing needless items such as plastic knives, spoons, containers.” There is no quick fix, but small changes can make waves when it comes to moving our society towards a more sustainable future. Every action counts, Mr. Redmon says. “Choosing not to use it is part of the solution.”