On Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras beads symbolize the celebration. The holiday may be fun for party-goers, but the plastic can be dangerous for the environment and for your children.
Each year the streets of New Orleans are cleaned of debris from Mardi Gras. Just last year, The Times-Picayune reported 46 tons of Mardi Gras beads found in clogged catch basins. More specifically, 93,000 pounds were picked up within a five-block stretch of St. Charles Avenue downtown.
The danger. Plastic Mardi Gras beads aren’t just dangerous for the environment, they’re dangerous for young children too. When your child picks up the beads, they can become exposed to a fine dusting of lead and hazardous chemicals such as flame retardants. Lead can harm the production of blood cells and the absorption of calcium needed for strong bones and teeth, muscle movements and the work of nerves and blood vessels according to KidsHealth. Depending on the levels of lead one is exposed to, brain and kidney damage is also a potential concern.
Signs and symptoms of lead poisoning. Many children won’t even have signs of being sick. Those that due may experience any of the following:
• Muscle and joint weakness
• Pale skin color
• Metallic taste
• Nausea and vomiting
• Weight loss
• Loss of appetite
• Behavioral problems
You can protect your child from being exposed to potentially hazardous substances with a few simple steps:
• Do not allow your child to put beads in their mouth
• Have you child wash their hands after handing the beads
• Bring baby wipes to the parade route and wipe your child’s hands after handing throws and before eating
• Wash beads that you plan to keep, especially if they were found on the ground
Discovering an alternative. Naohiro Kato, a Plant Cell Biologist and professor from Louisiana State University, realized how harmful plastic Mardi Gras beads are and decided to come up with a solution. As Kato described to Forbes, he discovered algae breaking down into oils one morning in his lab. His student had forgotten to move the algae out of the centrifuge the night before. Once he saw what happened to the algae, he realized that it would be a great material for bioplastic. The microscopic algae called diatoms, can be processed into a powder that can form throw beads and doubloons. These will then biodegrade in soil in about one to two years.
Unfortunately, the cost to manufacture these beads are high. The first batch was seen to be around $40,000, although Kato says this cost should slowly come down. The cost to produce these biodegradable beads can cost up to three times as much as plastic beads. He is also collaborating with other universities in order to develop other variations of the bead.
Locals taking the Lead. The Grounds Krewe, a nonprofit that collects beads for the social service agency, Arc of Greater New Orleans, will run its bead recycling program again this year. In this program beads are collected, cleaned and repackaged for the next Mardi Gras season. This year, the Grounds Krewe also plans to sell red beans and rice, jambalaya and coffee to krewe members in hopes of fewer plastic beads on the streets and in the gutters. There are also toothbrushes and cups for sale that are from recycled products and are biodegradable.
The Arc of Greater New Orleans has several Mardi Gras bead donation bins so you can safely dispose of your Fat Tuesday findings. You can find one here to protect your child and your community from plastic waste and chemical hazards.