We have all seen the pile drivers sweeping the streets for Mardi Gras beads after a parade. While there are organizations that promote the recycling of Mardi Gras beads, the celebration of Carnival still generates around 10,000 tons of trash along the Gulf Coast every year. Out of those 10,000 tons, 25 million pounds are said to come from the beads themselves (LA Times). According to local artist Stephan Wanger, "If you add the tonnage of Mardi Gras beads thrown of the last 40 years together and add the next 10 years to it, you have the tonnage of the BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill. The difference is that the Oil in the Gulf dilutes, the beads in landfills do not."
The tradition of throwing beads has developed into a worldwide symbol of what it means to celebrate Mardi Gras, including the mass consumption of plastic beads, plush toys, trinkets and throws which pump money into our local economy via tourism. However, after Fat Tuesday has come and gone, where does the waste go? What to do with all the beads?
Pinterest and the like can offer suggestions of how to reuse beads (assuming you don't want them taking up space in your living room anymore) or there are places to drop the beads post Carnival. One of the largest organizations that has been working towards a healthier Mardi Gras is Arc of Greater New Orleans. Beads can be dropped off at any of the Arc's four locations, or at one of their several partner locations including Arabella Station at Whole Foods, Dirty Coast, Mardi Gras World and the children's room at the Main Library.
Thinking about the waste on a large scale has also inspired a slew of organizations to speak out, urging communities to be more conscientious. Among the trail blazers are names like I Heart Louisiana and ZomBeads, both of which have lead the way in producing locally made, and sustainable throws.
Still, changing wasteful habits can seem like a daunting task when tourism relies so heavily on attractions like Bourbon Street and neon colored shots in test tubes. But New Orleans isn't just Bourbon Street and those test tube shots are obviously a disgusting, fraudulent excuse for booze. And the city has been working to deliver that message by negotiating between the importance of tourism and the true spirit people feel and think about when they experience this city. One artist who is standing on the front line of this fight is Stephan Wanger.
Originally from Wilhelmshaven, Germany, Wanger moved to New Orleans to help the city rebuild after Katrina. He began gluing Mardi Gras beads onto plastic planters which quickly evolved into something more. Feeling limited by the amount of space he had to work with, it wasn't long before Wanger realized that in order to show more detail, he needed to make a bigger visual. He began creating murals that he hoped would depict the magic of New Orleans. From 2007 to 2012, Wanger's detailed pieces used hundreds of thousands of beads to create awareness for a variety of charities.
Growing his efforts Wanger developed Bead Town, an interactive exhibit set-up to enlist community members to be a part of the creation process. Wanger began providing instruction and directing participants ranging from elementary school students and local organizations on how to prepare beads for muraling namely by cajoling beads off string which can be done with scissors or a small razor. There is a learning curve when it comes to the speed of bead necklace deconstruction, but the end result is the same. Beads are color coded (and sometimes spray painted) before being glued onto Stephan's painting. The idea is to reuse the beads, strengthen the community, and eventually, provide some kind of investment for those who have participated.
Currently Bead Town is comprised of over 100 bead mosaics. The traveling collective which has been touring since 2013 (hitting up New Orleans early last year) recently unveiled a 384-square-foot bead mosaic mural made up of 2 million Mardi Gras beads at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, Louisiana. The exhibit is one of the final stops for Bead Town in state. The project is meant to honor Natchitoches as they celebrate their tri-centennial. Natchitoches is the oldest city in the Louisiana purchase, four years older than New Orleans.
The mural created for the tri-centennial of Natchitoches is titled Un Rue Principale en Louisiane (A Main Street of Louisiana), and showcases a scene of downtown Front Street and the Cane River bank. Over 1,500 volunteers participated in the creation of the final product. Some students logged as many as 250 volunteer hours over six months, cutting, sorting and gluing beads to the 48-by-8 wooden piece. At completion, Un Rue Principale en Louisiane was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as 'The World's Largest Mosiac,' breaking Wanger's previous record.
Wanger reports that the conception of the project was a lot of work. He didn't know what to expect but community impact and engagement was essential. "I was thinking, you know gosh, 300th anniversary, this is so exciting. My daughter was just 2 months old and I was thinking, like, I can't believe I already have to worry about her education." He continues, "What if we didn't have to worry about the cost of education? What if we create a project that can benefit future Natchitoches students?"
As a result, Wanger has come up with the Natchitoches 300 Legacy Project. 300 prints of Un Rue Principale en Louisiane will be sold for $300 each. The proceeds will then go into a trust fund and in 25 years the money will go towards educational scholarships for the children in Natchitoches Parish. The hope is that by investing the money now, the project will create wealth for the community that helped bring the mural to life in the first place. Wanger's goal is that the tour will continue to spread the culture of Louisiana through touring and he has plans to head out of state to Chicago during this Carnival season.
The number one thing I've realize about making my home in New Orleans when I came here after Katrina is that there is a misunderstanding of what Mardi Gras really is. "It's not Bourbon, that's the number one misconception that needs to be tackled," Wanger comments on what he wants to convey with his work. In addition to upcycling Mardi Gras beads and promoting a more sustainable Carnival, the Bead Town exhibit will educate communities about the unique culture not only in New Orleans, but all over Louisiana.
"I have been touring with Bead Town for over a year and I have experienced people in Monroe, Denhem, Winnsboro, everywhere, and when they say they are from Louisiana people immediately assume they are from New Orleans which is good for New Orleans but there are incredible gems that come from all over the state: sweet potato farms, plantations, Natchitoches city, and I think that is what the exhibit is growing into. At first I was focusing on New Orleans pieces, like the fleur de lis, but there is more to it than that. I was creating the pieces to have on display in these towns and I noticed people wanted to do the exhibit with me. The youth want to do something meaningful,"
On making Carnival more sustainable, Wanger has a positive outlook.
The community created Mardi Gras so that everyone can get fat one more time before Lent. In that regard it's a community event and that is why I look at this [Bead Town] as community event. If the community creates something that generates trash then the community should work together to take care of the consequences. It has to be done in an educational way. If you say 'you have to do this' it will never get done. It's better to do it in a fun environment that highlights the positive.
While Wanger acknowledges the importance of beads to tourism, he suggests that people interested in getting involved look beyond traditional means. I think about the tourists as they travel to New Orleans and I know they want to be excited about throws and everything else. Some travel hours just to get to Mardi Gras. They want the excitement and we ought to provide that. But going forward, we ought to provide more alternatives for accessing, upcycling and recycling the beads too. Lots of the options will require more work, but it creates an incredible opportunity for children to get involved and make a difference."