In New Orleans, it’s not Mardi Gras without the beads. It’s a nearly 200-year-old tradition for parade marchers to treat the huge crowds to freebies, which have evolved from glass baubles and nuts to today’s plastic jewel-tone beads. On Fat Tuesday, the beads are nearly ubiquitous, as they’ve come to symbolize the celebration. But when the party’s over, the beads linger.
One scientist has proposed a solution that could make Mardi Gras beads biodegradable. If his idea comes to fruition, it could save the city time and money on cleanup and cut down on post-celebration landfill trash.
In a 2017 cleanup project, workers removed 93,000 pounds of beads from storm drains in the mansion-studded blocks of historic downtown New Orleans. Before this year’s celebration, the city bought about 250 gutter filtering devices to prevent beads from clogging the catch basins along the parade’s route. While the filters will ostensibly keep beads out of the storm drains and prevent flooding, they can’t save the beads from their ultimate fate. Close to 1,200 tons of trash were collected post-parade in 2018, most of which ended up in landfills.
That’s where Naohiro Kato, a biological sciences professor at Louisiana State University, comes in. He has produced algae-based beads that break down over time.
His discovery — that algae processed in a centrifuge could form a biodegradable, plastic-like material — was actually a mistake. A lab student tasked with processing algae samples in a centrifuge and then placing them in a freezer forgot to freeze the algae one night. Come morning, Kato arrived to find the future of Mardi Gras in his lab.
The concept was exciting, but Kato said he knew the execution wouldn’t be simple. Producing algae-based Mardi Gras beads would cost up to 10 times as much as conventional plastic, he told HuffPost. His invention will have to be cheaper for it to go mainstream.
“Even though it’s technologically possible [to produce these beads], it’s economically impossible,” he said.
To make up for high costs, Kato and his Baton Rouge–based company, Microalgae, are working with companies in the nutraceutical industry, which has a high demand for algae-based material because it enables products to be labeled as vegetarian or vegan. (The material can be used in place of animal-derived ingredients, like gelatin, that often show up in vitamins and supplements.) This new relationship would foster the mass production of microalgae-based material; leftover biomass from the supplement industry can be saved for making beads, according to Kato’s plans.
Kato’s algae-based beads break down naturally over one to two years, while plastic beads can last for dozens or hundreds. Two years is a sweet spot in terms of shelf life, he said, because “you don’t want to have beads that melt on your hands or in the rain.” The lifespan of these beads may change, depending on what kind of chemicals he uses to add colors that can match the allure of bright conventional Mardi Gras beads. He said he’s still figuring out this aspect of production.
While algae beads won’t be distributed at this year’s parade, he is working with multiple krewes ― the associations responsible for the parade floats ― which are testing the product and will hopefully place orders for 2020. In the meantime, even some local plastic companies are on board (though he said he couldn’t reveal which ones), lending their molds for beads and negotiating terms for purchasing leftover algae materials from the supplement companies.
For Mardi Gras partiers who don’t want to wait until 2020 to fling sustainable beads, there are already a few options on the market. Companies like Atlas Beads and Throw Me Something Green sell biodegradable paper beads. And one group of volunteers called the Trashformers is rallying to dedicate part of the festivities to collecting trash.
The social service agency Arc of Greater New Orleans will again run its bead recycling program, in which trashed beads are collected, cleaned and repackaged for the next year.
After all, everybody wants to continue Mardi Gras traditions and make sure the bons temps last.
This story is part of a series on plastic waste, funded by SC Johnson. All content is editorially independent, with no influence or input from the company.