The Mardi Gras Cleanup Hangover

"Gutter buddies" installed by the city serve to keep litter out of gutters during parades. Photo from ACF Environmental

Mardi Gras attracts millions of people annually, but once the festivities end, the city’s cleanup crews have their own kind of hangover to deal with: Mardi Gras beads. In preparation for this year’s carnival season, city officials installed 200 temporary “gutter buddies” along parade routes. Designed to keep debris out of storm sewers, they serve as brightly colored reminders of the aftermath of Mardi Gras revelry.

Prompted by the Aug. 2017 floods, the Department of Public Works spent $22 million on emergency catch basin restoration and cleaning. So far, 23,091 catch basins have been cleared, according to roadwork.nola.gov. On Jan. 25, Public Works Director Dani Galloway noted that 7.2 million pounds of refuse have been dredged from storm drains since Sept. 26 — that’s more than the weight of 16 Statues of Liberty. Of this waste, 93,000 pounds consisted of Mardi Gras beads dropped by parade routes along just five blocks of St. Charles Avenue.

To protect drains from the incoming flood of Mardi Gras detritus, the Sewerage and Water Board and the Department of Sanitation spent more than $30,000 creating and installing the “gutter buddies.” After discovering that 46 tons of Mardi Gras beads were to blame for polluting city drain systems, some citizens have gone a step further, calling for a complete ban on non-biodegradable beads. A petition was created on thepetitionsite.com to “demand that krewes throw items that are less toxic and trashy” and it already has 14,889 supporters for its 15,000-signature goal.

Dr. Howard Mielke’s toxicology research at Tulane University supports the presence of lethal chemicals in beads. His team’s investigation uncovered many dangerous chemicals inside beads imported from China, including chlorine, bromine, cadmium, arsenic, tin, phthalates, mercury and lead, all of which are poisonous, and many of which are carcinogenic. “There isn’t a system in the body that isn’t affected by lead,” Mielke told WWLTV.

A growing concern about the everlasting and toxic Mardi Gras bead has prompted some to seek a naturally decomposing alternative. Dr. Naohiro Kato, a biological sciences professor from LSU, has developed a way to make beads from microalgae. Louisiana’s warm and moist environment is ideal for producing large quantities of microalgae, but on Feb. 6, Kato explained to the Times-Picayune that a pool the size of a football field would be necessary to grow enough microalgae for the beads. Therefore, Kato looks toward the vegan vitamin industry, which discards enough microalgae waste to supply bead production.

Because storm drains are common targets for litter, lawn clippings, plastic bottles and beads, the city is encouraging residents to monitor nearby drains and keep them clear of debris.  Homeowners are specifically advised to never deposit or sweep gardening refuse into their drains. Those interested in helping to keep local drains clean can sign up at catchbasin.nola/gov and become a part of the city’s Adopt-A-Catchbasin program. UNO alone has about 54 catch basins bordering its campus on Leon C. Simon.  Total, there are over 63,038 in the city.