On March 13, 2019, just days after the end of the Mardi Gras season, Mayor Latoya Cantrell announced that 1,072 tons of trash had been collected by sanitation workers cleaning up the purple, green, and gold mess left by revelers. This astounding number was actually a bit less than previous years, even though it was a longer Mardi Gras season than normal. The modest drop in trash collection may be due, in part, to an increase in throw-recycling efforts.
The push for a greener, more environmentally friendly Carnival has picked up steam in the last few years as Mardi Gras beads have been found clogging catch basins around the city and since people around the world are becoming more conscious about how much garbage they produce. In the fall of 2018, the Urban Conservancy (UC) and other local organizations held a forum titled "The Future of Mardi Gras," at which ideas to make Mardi Gras less wasteful and destructive were discussed.
The UC's Director, Dana Eness, commented, "The forum brought 300 New Orleanians together to discuss ways to reduce the adverse environmental impact of Carnival season while growing the local economic impact. It encouraged New Orleanians to continue to share their ideas for more sustainable practices on and off the parade route and launch initiatives that shift the focus away from trashing the city and toward uplifting more local, ethical, green traditions. This Carnival season, we're seeing the results of connections made at the forum."
One of the vendors at the forum was ArcGNO, a decades-old non-profit servicing people with intellectual disabilities. Currently, they serve around 600 children and adults in Orleans Parish and its neighboring parishes. ArcGNO has proudly given some of their clients wage-earning jobs at the Mardi Gras Recycle Center. For over 30 years, they have been sorting donated beads and selling them back to krewes so that the krewe members aren't tempted to buy more and more beads that may wind up in the gutter or landfill.
Toni Wright, manager of the Mardi Gras Recycle Center, explained that more beads come in and get sold each year, and this new emphasis on environmentalism is really boosting their program. "In the past, we received about 168,000 pounds of beads throughout the year; however, in this past season, we received 340,000 pounds of throws within six weeks of Mardi Gras day. This is an amazing moment for us at the ArcGNO Mardi Gras Recycle Center. We have never had so much community support and are truly grateful for all
the donations the community has given
us this year."
Beads can be donated at many locations around town, including Whole Foods at 5600 Magazine St., Rouses at 2701 Airline Dr. in Metairie, the Green Project at 2831 Marais St., and the Occasional Wife located at 8237 Earhart Blvd. But the Mardi Gras Recycle Center gets large donations from the "Throw 'Em Back" floats at the ends of some parades where revelers can immediately give up their throws.
"Over the last two years, we have changed our process so that we are more efficient and can create a better product for our customers," Wright noted. "Once the throws enter our facility, we create our inventory by weighing a box that is 4'x4'x4'. These boxes typically weigh 1,000 pounds each. The next step in this process is to sort the products. We depend strongly on volunteer support to accomplish this. In 2018, we hosted 4,026 volunteers; this year, we are hoping to host over 5,000 volunteers in this 12-month period. The volunteers work along with our staff and are taught how to untangle and sort all the various products that are in the big boxes. We depend strongly on local volunteers who already have knowledge of Mardi Gras products and krewe names and can process a higher volume during their time with us. We have a full retail store, located at 925 Labarre Rd. in Metairie right off Airline Highway." ArcGNO's throw store is open Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. until 4 p.m.; and Saturday, 9 a.m. until 1 p.m.; or you can shop online at arcgnobeads.org.
In addition to having more donations than ever, ArcGNO's program has more support from krewes than they've ever had. "For the first time in the history of our social enterprise, we have the support of three krewes who have signed sales agreements to provide recycled throws to their members," Wright said beaming. "We are selling directly to the Krewe of Excalibur, Krewe of Centurions, and the Krewe of Rex. What we are all learning is that due to the quantity we have sorted, we are able to provide a quantity discount to krewes. We have been very grateful for the opportunity to support each of these krewes, as they have made a commitment to support our efforts of providing jobs and income to up to 48 disabled adults who reside in one of the five parishes we serve."
This circle of bead-recycling is a win for ArcGNO, the krewes who support them, people wanting to get rid of their throws in a responsible way, and the environment, and it's only set to grow more in the years to come. According to Wright, "Last year, we sold over 75 tons of goods to Carnival riders. This year, we have processed and have prepared for sale over 95 tons ready to sell. By providing a product that is packaged similarly to a new retail product and easier for the rider to handle and throw, we find they are purchasing more. It does not hurt that their money is going to support a non-profit that helps disabled adults within our community have jobs. Our social enterprise has been able to provide dignity, financial independence, and personal growth to our disabled staff, and has been blessed to watch each staff member rise to new levels of skills and abilities. Each time someone exhibits this growth, we watch their sense of self-esteem rise."
If you're in the market for bags of beads this year, consider shopping locally at ArcGNO's Mardi Gras Recycling Center, where your money goes to help people right here in the community..