Mardi Gras is a festive time for many, with all those parades and parties, balls and beads. But when all the fun is over, revelers have more than just fond memories, glittery souvenir shoes, and several pounds of king cake weight left to show for it.
The celebrations also leave behind a combined total of approximately 1,250 tons (2.5 million pounds) of garbage in the streets—comprised of discarded throws and parade-viewing trash, such as empty food and drink containers. To put that in language that partiers can relate to, the trash produced in a single Mardi Gras season in New Orleans has the equivalent weight of about 15,580 full beer kegs.
New Orleans imports more than 25 million pounds of plastic beads every Mardi Gras (the approximate weight of the Eiffel Tower), and one super krewe estimates that its riders toss 15 million throws during its parade alone. With that quantity of assorted novelties being flung around, not all of them can be lucky enough to find their forever home in some parade-goer's display case or storage box in the attic, so many end up rejected in the streets. If one man's trash really is another man's treasure, New Orleans streets are an absolute treasure chest full of riches imported from China.
Throughout Carnival season, main thoroughfares such as St. Charles Avenue and Canal Street become a regular stew of discarded stuffed animals, used drink cups, enough beads to swim in, and a hodgepodge of all things plastic, plush, light-up, hanging, flashing, flying, sippable, wearable, and cuddly. And it's up to the New Orleans Department of Sanitation, with the help of other local organizations, to remove all this debris and clean our streets right down to the potholes underneath. Here's a little trash talk to explain how it all works.
The trash-removal process is pricey and complicated, involving many moving parts that must work together in harmony, like an orchestra performing an intricate symphony of garbage elimination. The entire trashy concerto can cost taxpayers and the city well over a million dollars per year.
According to City Hall, around 500 people work daily during Mardi Gras to clean up the trash in the streets, though after some especially busy parades, the number or workers has sometimes been nearly double that. These hordes of dedicated trash collectors are a combo of year-round city workers, seasonal labor, and contracted employees who work around the clock during Carnival to rid the city of its mass quantities of Mardi Gras scraps. In fact, the Department of Sanitation starts recruiting staff and volunteers a year in advance for the next upcoming season to make sure that they have enough people for the job.
But it's not just human forces that are needed—the process also involves an entire fleet of equipment and machinery. At any given time, there could be as many as eight to 10 garbage trucks, 16 dump trucks, six front-end loaders, four street flushers, and between six and 10 pressure-washers assigned to a single parade. Add to that various street sweepers, pushers, blowers, skid steers, and roll-off trucks. The Department of Sanitation reported one year that they used over 100 different pieces of equipment to purge the streets of their many Carnival leftovers.
The Department of Sanitation uses a "divide and conquer" approach to trash removal—they split up their workforce into multiple teams that position themselves at either the beginning, middle, or end of the parade route and attack the debris as soon as the parade has passed by that particular area. With multiple groups working on separate locations simultaneously, they're able to finish the daunting task much more quickly.
"The Department of Sanitation aims to complete the cleaning of each parade route within three hours of the end of the parade," said Matt Torri, the director of the New Orleans Department of Sanitation. "We take tremendous pride in promptly cleaning up the route after each parade. It's incredible to see the transformation of the route pre-, during, and post-parade."
Before the city became so efficient in its garbage-abolishment techniques, however, it would take between 12 and 24 hours to tidy up the streets after the larger parades, and cleaning sometimes continued for days.
The River Birch Landfill in Avondale is where Mardi Gras goes to die. Over a thousand tons of parade remnants are dumped into the ground there—the weight of 200 elephants' worth of garbage. Yet the landfill is a preferable alternative to allowing the remains of Carnivals past to clog up New Orleans' gutters and drains. One year, they removed a sum total of 93,000 pounds of beads and 7.2 million pounds of debris from city storm drains within just five blocks along St. Charles Avenue. That's the weight of around 365 parade floats.
Despite the fact that the Department of Sanitation puts out over a thousand 55-gallon trash barrels on parade routes (enough to hold more than 192,000 large daiquiris), many people still choose to drop, dump, or abandon tons of Mardi Gras cast-offs of various sorts, from spurned throws to personal property that's worn out its usefulness. "After the last parade on Mardi Gras Day, folks tend to say a final goodbye to their Mardi Gras investments and leave them on the parade route," Torri said. "The number of perfectly good ladders, tents, coolers, tables, and leftover food we remove is astonishing."
But while it might seem innocent enough to throw your empty go-cup on the ground or toss your no-longer-needed foldable chair, consider how long it takes your trash to degrade in a landfill: cigarette butts linger for one to five years, aluminum cans can last 500 years, glass bottles last for 1,000 years, and plastic bottles stick around indefinitely. Therefore, due to the colossal volume of garbage in the streets, the cost of removing it, and its environmental impact, the city of New Orleans strongly encourages parade-goers to recycle their throws and parade paraphernalia.
Programs such as Arc of Greater New Orleans (ArcGNO), as well as the Department of Sanitation, recycle tens of thousands of pounds of beads annually. Grounds Krewe is a nonprofit organization that promotes waste reduction through both waste prevention and recycling. Their initiatives include passing out recycling bags to parade-goers along the routes and collecting recyclables from the crowds mid-parade. They also work to create eco-friendly and sustainable throws.
But every single parade-goer can help reduce the trash that swallows New Orleans every Mardi Gras season. Each empty beer you recycle, every blinky toy you take home rather than chucking it on the ground, and every box of beads you donate can help make a difference. If anyone tries to tell you otherwise, well, that's just garbage.