In recent years, community efforts across the Gulf Coast region have gained a lot of ground in the fight to keep plastic Mardi Gras trinkets out of the drains and gutters and the waterways they eventually dump into.
It doesn’t help that it’s “bad juju” to keep or pick up Mardi Gras throws that land on the ground. Anything not caught in mid-air is likely the dangling detritus you see in the trees or power lines, and all along the curbs and swales along parade routes.
We spoke with two high schools on the coast with programs that involve students in Mardi Gras recycling programs. After reading these stories, scroll down for other eco-actions also getting traction along the Mardi Gras coast.
Ball High School, Galveston, TX: The Tor Store & Beads for Needs
Funny thing about Ball High on Galveston Island: The school’s mascot and school colors share two of the three Mardi Gras hues. Tuffy the Tor (aka tornado) and every other indicator of school spirit splashed across the hallow halls of Ball are decked out in purple and gold.
It’s not just a crazy design scheme: Mardi Gras colors have meaning. Purple represents Justice. Gold represents Power. And Green represents Faith.
Well, make room, Faith. These days, Green also represents the environment, and Ball High’s Mardi Gras Beads for Needs program and other projects like it are proof.
It’s no secret that cheap, mass-produced plastic Mardi Gras beads are bad news for the environment. According to New Orleans & Co. online, “Going back decades, the city [of New Orleans] would determine whether the Carnival season was successful or not based on the amount of trash collected along the parade route.” This was years before consciousness clicked and folks began to own up to ignoring plastic contamination in waterways.
Galveston’s Beads for Needs program addresses this pollution. Donated beads get new life instead of ending up in storm drains or landfills. And carnival krewes get recycled, refurbished, and renewed throws each year at cheap prices, plus, the goodwill that comes from that money going to good causes: Win. Win. Win!
Beads for Needs, however, has an even higher, more immediate calling: As a part of Ball High’s mission, the program helps students gain life and business skills and develop community connection and a sense of stewardship.
Enter Darren Muren and Stephen “Rob” Lewis, two affable, bearded bros who run the program. Muren is special ed and vocational teacher and Lewis a business teacher. While they handle different ends of the Beads for Needs deeds, they share an enthusiastic commitment to help elevate kids’ lives and make the world a better place.
“Nobody is a sideline player,” offers Lewis as he takes me on a tour of the corner of campus occupied by the Life Skills and Entrepreneurial programs and the student-run Tor Store.
“Or as I like to say, ‘Everyone is essential.’ That’s how we operate this. Each student takes on roles and responsibilities – in inventory, design, budget, selling – and we all come together to make it work.”
Many of the students in the program are differently abled, so the skills can be life-changing. Students take an active role, he explains, while showing off the workspace. They design and sometimes produce merchandise, thanks to some pretty sleek industrial-strength equipment. The program was able to purchase two Roland wide-format printers and a Roland DGA UV printer for shirts, banners, and more, with grant funding from the Moody Family Foundation.
The Tor Store doesn’t just sell the usual spirit swag and school-colors shirts (although those are important stock items), the store also resells the cleaned and repackaged Mardi Gras beads to local krewes for their parades. The students also vend merch at Mardi Gras and other local festivals and markets. They even host events. The upcoming Everyone Is Essential 5K/1K Fun Run & Festival is their next fundraiser after Mardi Gras. Revenue earned goes back into the program.
While the program begins to support itself, other ideas are brewing: The teachers hope to take Beads for Needs to the next level. Last year, during an interview with Good Morning America, Muren shared the dream:
“The ultimate goal for our program in the next 3 to 5 years is to open an offsite facility where, once our students graduate, we would be able to hire them – for them to become employed.”
D’Iberville High School, Biloxi, MS: The Eco-Warriors
“Nobody knows what to do with them! They end up either on the road or in the trash,” says Evelyn McQueen, Chemistry teacher and club sponsor for the D’Iberville High Eco-Warriors. She’s talking about Mardi Gras beads. But that’s not where this story begins.
Back in 2019, McQueen was a young, still relatively new teacher at D’Iberville High. She noticed that paper, cardboard boxes, water bottles, etc., were simply thrown out in the trash. And as young, still relatively new teachers sometimes do, she piped up and asked a member of the school’s admin, “Hey, why do we not recycle?”
“I don’t know,” the admin replied. “Go for it.” So she did. She organized a green team, with no budget and empty copy-paper boxes for receptacles.
Then Covid hit. When school resumed, the team had to start all over again from scratch. After a fundraiser allowed for the purchase of plastic bins for half of the classrooms, Mississippi Power followed up with a grant. The team is in the third year of receiving the grant, and there is now one recycling bin for every trashcan in the school.
“The recycling is picked up by the kids every day – over 4,000 pounds of recycling every month,” she reports. “The kids are the only way this works.”
Then came Mardi Gras. The Eco-Warriors partnered with Harrison County Beautification Commission and the school district’s Special Education department. The kids would collect, donate, and sell the beads. Classrooms would earn gifts for most collected.
The group fully intended to continue the program, until Jeff Clark from Mississippi Aquarium called and invited them to be part of a much larger one. Last year, the aquarium had sent over 10,000 pounds of Mardi Gras beads and swag to the Arc of Greater New Orleans – an organization set up to handle very large recycling and reuse projects.
“So, instead of one class going to one class,” begins McQueen “we are now part of a recycling project for the entire Mississippi coast.” This week, district schools enjoy a three-day break for Mardi Gras. When the Eco-Warriors return, their work will be cut out for them. Beads will already be rolling in.
“We anticipate a whole bunch,” says McQueen.
Augusta Evans School & Krispy Kreme in Foley & Mobile, AL: Beads for Donuts
What’s that saying? The way to a person’s conscience is through their stomach…? Or something?
The Mobile and Foley, Alabama outlets of Krispy Kreme Doughnuts partner with the Augusta Evans School to bring about eco-awareness through the delicious Beads for Donuts program.
In 2022, doughnut-loving Alabamans donated over 50 pallets of beads – over 28.5 tons. The beads were traded for over 5,200 doughnut vouchers. The school kids then prepped the beads to resell packages of the Mardi Gras throws to parade krewes for 2023. This Mardi Gras, the cycle starts all over again!
The City of Mobile also participates and adds to the tonnage by donating all of the beads it collects through the city-staffed “Clean-Up Crew”s that follow all of the parades.
Krewe d’Kaos, Foley & Gulf Shores, AL: Mardi Gras Beads Recycling Donations
In cartoons, when a character is fishing and pulls up a boot, it gets a laugh. Not so for Renea Ammons, the krewe administrator for Foley, Alabama’s Krewe d’Kaos. When she pulled up a strand of gold-painted beads, she knew it was not good. So, she and krewe member Sandy Adams decided to launch a recycling program for the area.
Specially marked recycling bins are available in popular locations throughout the season. During parades, bins are placed along the route. Salvageable beads are spiffed up and bundled by the krewe for next year’s parade.
Alabama Coastal Foundation, Mobile, AL: Eco-Team Recycling
The eco-heroes at Alabama Coastal Foundation through their Cleaner, Greener LoDa Committee pulled together a SuperFriends team of nine Mobile powerhouses, like the Downtown Mobile Alliance, Goodwill, the City of Mobile, and more to create the “Eco-Team.” The team is tasked to be the volunteer base for recycling projects at some of the largest events along the AL Coast.
In addition to their IRL activities, they’ve published a Mardi Gras Sustainability Guide for money- and Earth-saving hints during carnival season.
The City of New Orleans, New Orleans & Co. & Arc-GNO, New Orleans, LA: Recycle Dat!
So many news stories about New Orleans Mardi Gras recycling efforts start with some version of this eye-popping snippet from NOLA.com: In 2018, 93,000 pounds of beads were pulled out of the gutters in a mere five-block area of Uptown New Orleans.
For a city below sea-level and prone to flooding, that spells disaster. Fortunately, a new collaboration is working to find solutions.
Whereas Mobile’s noble consortium of eco-pals equals the SuperFriends, New Orleans new Recycle Dat! initiative is of Multiverse proportions. Combining superpowers, the Office of Mayor LaToya Cantrell, along with New Orleans & Co. (the muscular marketing arm of NOLA), Grounds Krewe, and the ArcGNO, among other area non-profits, have launched this new glass, aluminum can, and parade throws recycling program.
“While Mardi Gras is meant to be a time of celebration and indulgence, it doesn’t mean that we can’t make the season healthier for our environment,” said Mayor Cantrell in a recent press statement. Volunteers will distribute free recycling bags and collect the bags after the last daytime parade passes. Ten stationary “can stations” will be located along parade routes as well. Additional drop-off locations include the popular Audubon Zoo and Audubon Aquarium of the Americas (admission not required).
Needless to say, this is a massive operation, and considering the scale of the annual New Orleans Mardi Gras season, it comes in the nick of time, not a moment too soon.
LARC’s Acadian Village, Lafayette, LA: Mardi Gras Beads-N-More
Mitigating the impact of pollution is no lark! Lafayette-ARC creates employment and skills opportunities for folks with developmental disabilities. The Mardi Gras Beads-N-More store operates weekdays until 2pm, at the facility’s Acadian Village.
LARC partners with Goodwill to collect beads, which collects the strands at all of their Acadiana locations. These trinkets are cleaned, sorted, bundled, and made ready for resale. Then the proceeds benefit LARC’s Vocational Services Department.
Arc Gateway’s Pollak Industries, Pensacola, FL
Their own social media says it all:
“🥳🎉 Hip Hip Parade! 🎉 🥳
Pensacola Parade People: The Mardi Gras Store is feeling that ✨ big bead energy ✨ thanks to a fresh supply of Mardi Gras beads packaged by our clients at Pollak Industries!
Local Krewes, businesses, and civic groups planning to participate in upcoming festivities can purchase these beads at PPP knowing they’re doing good for the environment and for those with intellectual and developmental disabilities.
Good vibes all around. That’s just how we roll in Pensacola!”