Mardi Gras Creates 2.5 Million Pounds of Trash—This Group Wants to Change That

The Grounds Krewe recycles beads and sells eco-friendly items to reduce waste at this iconic event.

Grounds Krewe
Photo courtesy of Grounds Krewe
Photo courtesy of Grounds Krewe

As more than two dozen parades march through New Orleans in the days leading up to Fat Tuesday, locals and tourists alike come out to see epic floats, dance along with talented marching bands, and leave decked out in more green, gold, and purple beads than you can imagine. After all, Mardi Gras is all about excess.

But after each parade rolls through town, the streets are left disheveled, with toilet paper hanging from trees and broken cups crushed on the sidewalk. The very beads people were competing to grab just hours earlier are left strewn across the pavement without a second thought.

Mardi Gras is one of the most iconic celebrations in the world—but it’s also one of the most wasteful, producing around 2.5 million pounds of garbage in less than two weeks. While food and drink containers and other waste contributes to the problem, the majority of the trash created during Carnival season is single-use plastic in the form of colorful beads and other goodies given out by parade floats.

“Mardi Gras has turned into an environmental disaster,” says Brett Davis, director of the Grounds Krewe, an organization aiming to make the event more sustainable. “It’s embarrassing that we’re inviting people to our city to watch this.”

The waste accumulated during Mardi Gras is nothing new to this life-long New Orleans resident. So after seeing the issue literally pile up over the years with no solution in sight, Davis assembled a group to step in and work toward a solution.

Grounds Krewe
Photo courtesy of Grounds Krewe

Davis launched Grounds Krewe in 2017, joining a few local nonprofits that work to recycle Mardi Gras-related materials to make the event a little greener. The group now has a three-pronged approach to reducing waste at Mardi Gras: collecting cans and other recyclables during parades, cleaning and recycling beads to be reused at future parades, and selling eco-friendly products to throw from floats to replace single-use plastic.

The group’s first initiative was a recycling program where members handed out mesh bags called crawfish sacks to people along the parade route, hoping that they would fill it with extra throws they didn’t plan to use.

After years of running the recycling program solely with help from volunteers, Grounds Krewe teamed up with the city and other organizations for the first time last year to distribute bead recycling bags to attendees on the first day of Carnival and place recycling bins along the parade routes for cans and bottles.

Leaning into Mardi Gras’ spirit of excess and over-the-top fun, the group also now runs a marching krewe called the TrashFormers. Every year during smaller neighborhood celebrations in residential areas like Bywater and Marigny, a group of about 30 people dress up in eco-themed, punny costumes and push shopping carts decked out in green lights to collect recyclables along the route. The impact of this flashy event is smaller than the group’s other efforts, Davis says, “and it's easy to get disheartened about the impact in terms of waste diverted from landfills, but it’s all about awareness.”

Many tourists that flock to New Orleans for the annual event are surprised by the debris left behind by each parade. Davis says he’s even heard people say they don’t want to return to Mardi Gras because it feels so frivolously wasteful.

“It's shocking to see,” Davis says. “We're talking about banning straws and plastic bags, but those are functional products. We're over here just having fun, throwing things on the ground for no reason.”

All that waste also has implications for local infrastructure and public health that many don’t take into account. For a low-lying city like New Orleans, proper drainage is crucial—but after a bout of extreme flooding in 2017, New Orleans sanitation workers extracted more than 93,000 pounds of Mardi Gras beads from clogged storm drains along a five-block stretch of St. Charles Avenue.

Many of the cheap products thrown out during Mardi Gras contain harmful chemicals that Davis says should have no place in the celebration. Simply reusing plastic beads is “prolonging the problem” and the ultimate goal should be completely eliminating single-use plastics from Mardi Gras, he says.

Grounds Krewe
Photo courtesy of Grounds Krewe

With that goal in mind, he started selling sustainable throws ahead of the 2020 parade. Instead of trinkets that will be used for a day or two, the Grounds Krewe offers a catalog of environmentally friendly and useful items like bamboo toothbrushes, canvas bags, and biodegradable glitter, all ready to be customized with a krewe’s logo and thrown from parade floats.

The initiative also provides a way to support small businesses and create jobs. A local soapmaker now sells purple, green, and gold soap through the Ground Krewe’s online store, while another business offers jambalaya mix so people can easily make the iconic New Orleans dish at home. Corporate branding and sponsors are not allowed during Mardi Gras, so the Grounds Krewe hires locals to repackage each product in a jute tote bag and include a QR code so catchers can learn more about the business and product they’ve received.

In the Grounds Krewe’s second year selling sustainable options, they teamed up with the Krewe of Iris, the first group of all women to march in Mardi Gras, and sold more than 100,000 items.

“The level of conversation around this issue has exploded. It used to be the type of thing people were afraid to talk about because Mardi Gras is an important tradition that is supposed to be all positive,” Davis says. But with more people dialed into the issue than ever, he’s confident the future of Mardi Gras can be green.

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Liz Provencher is an editor at Thrillist. You can follow her on Twitter or see what she eats on Instagram.