No object screams bacchanalian melee quite like the beaded throws chucked at revelers along the Mardi Gras parade route each spring during Carnival. In New Orleans alone, krewes toss more than 25 million pounds of plastic beads each year as sloshed spectators clamor to collect.
Unfortunately, the beads are more than just wasteful–they're toxic, according to the Ecology Center's Healthy Stuff Lab scientists.
In 2019, we tested 56 beaded necklaces collected from Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans and parades in Florida. Similar to our 2013 study, we found bits of chopped-up electronic waste inside the beads, along with high levels of toxic chemicals.
Electronic devices are made of heavy metals and surrounded by plastic "housing" infused with flame retardant chemicals. When recycled, these hazardous metals and chemicals enter the new product.
“These bead products are being used as a dumping ground for old plastic waste apparently from electronics, which is loaded with toxic chemicals,” said Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Center’s research director. “We estimate that a single year’s inventory of Mardi Gras beads may contain many thousands of pounds of hazardous flame retardants and lead.”
For our study, we tested 66 components in the 56 necklaces. Most of them contained high levels of bromine (70% of tested samples) and antimony (64% of tested samples), strongly suggesting the presence of brominated flame retardants and antimony trioxide. Most also contained chlorine levels consistent with the presence of chlorinated flame retardants. Many flame retardants are known endocrine disruptors, and some are linked to cancer.
One-third (33%) of the bead samples contained lead at levels higher than 100 parts per million (ppm), the limit allowed in children's products in the United States. One sample had lead levels as high as 472 ppm. Lead is a known neurotoxin. Additional tests on a subset of necklaces found that 12 out of 14 contained a triaryl phosphate chemical. Triaryl phosphates are used as flame retardants or as plasticizers.
Worse still, not only are plastic Mardi Gras beads toxic but they also have become a solid waste issue, with tons of discarded, unwanted plastic beads littering the streets, clogging storm drains, and polluting local rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. Further, as outlined by David Redmon in Smithsonian Magazine, the production of the beads in grim overseas factories demonstrates the intersectionality we see time and time again in unhealthy stuff: toxic, cheap, single-use items often come at the high price of horrible labor violations.
Alternatives to Plastics in Parades
Some parade organizers in New Orleans have started looking for more creative options for single-use plastic throws.
“There is amongst many krewes an awareness of the problem and nascent efforts to replace toxic throws,” said Holly Groh of Verdi Gras, a New Orleans-based non-profit organization working to reduce Mardi Gras waste pollution. “The sheer scale of the situation means that things may have to get a little worse before they get better.”
The non-profit Grounds Krewe offers a catalog of "throws worth catching," including small jute bags of red beans, jambalaya rice mix, and coffee. Other items in the catalog include:
- Recycled paper pencils,
- Bamboo toothbrushes,
- Seeds or bamboo necklaces, and
- Small herb growing kits.
Atlas Handmade Beads makes beads from recycled magazines, and all purchases support a women's art collective in Uganda. Louisiana State University scientists have developed biodegradable beads made from algae.
If you are celebrating Fat Tuesday this year, consider a new catch–non-toxic, biodegradable, or even edible throws! They still glitter, cause less litter, and likely contain no flame retardants.
Side note: If you do handle plastic Mardi Gras beads, do not allow children or adults to put them in their mouths, and always wash hands after touching. Consider bringing baby wipes to parades to wipe children's hands after catching and playing with beads and before eating.